Helsinki Energy Challenge Final Event: Results & Learnings, 16 March 2021

Helsinki Energy Challenge Final Event: Results & Learnings, 16 March 2021

“Dear participants of the Helsinki Energy Challenge,

Dear friends,

We are in the middle of an un-before-seen crisis. It unifies every corner of our globe. It kills silently. It alters our way of life forever. And it seems we are helpless in our efforst to stop it or even manage it. Climate crisis is the deepest wound of our generation, and the generations to come.

Climate crisis requires determined, concrete action and realistic solutions at every level of society. Global declarations and commitments are important. But actual results can only be achieved through the decisive actions of nations, local and regional governments, corporations and NGOs. We need to change our way of living – but we need to do it in a way that creates actual scale. And makes sense to people.

Climate change is the biggest risk to every city in the world. It contributes to growing segregation, uneven distribution of resources and our ability to maintain health.  Most climate change problems originate in cities. Cities are also taking the lead in tackling this most pressing issue of our lifetimes.

Cities are at the forefront of this battle. We must try to foresee the future and dare to dream big.

Helsinki wants to be one of the forefront cities in providing tangible solutions to the fight against climate change. Even in the middle of a global pandemic we have not diminished our determination and action.

We want to clean up our own house. But in a way that makes sense and provides solutions also to others. What we do here is important. But even more important is that every solution, step forward,  challenge, competition, idea or technical solution must also provide to a bigger scale – the whole planet.

Heating is one of the major concerns in Helsinki as one of the northernmost and coolest capitals in the world. Even to us, heating the city is not only a matter of security of supply, but all the time more importantly a great stake in the battle against climate change. More than half of the emissions of our city generate from our heating system.

A year ago, Helsinki Energy Challenge was born out of disbelief. It seemed our ability to provide a solution to a carbon-neutral future was stuck in the decisions of the past. Burning biomass was offered as part of the solution. Making fundamental changes in the energy system was deemed by many as “unnecessary” or “too difficult”. We needed to do better, dream bigger and do it faster.

Now we know that the whole energy sector is in transition. For decades we have relied on our advanced district heating system, but now it’s time to ask: is it enough. We needed to find a way to evaluate our ability to get rid of coal in an efficient and lontg-term sustainable fashion without being stuck in the idea that some things can never be changed.

As a result, we created this competition – The Helsinki Energy Challenge – to put the best minds in the world to work. Realizing the problem is bigger than Helsinki, and also the solutions needs to be, we were determined to not only find necessary solutions for Helsinki, but to offer new insight and  inspiration to the whole world.

We challenged the world to think how the city can be heated in a modern and sustainable way. We wanted to find future-proof solutions to replace the heat that is now produced by burning coal. Future-proof solutions – meaning, solutions that do not burn any fossil fuels but no biomass either.

Helsinki aims to be a testbed for sustainable solutions for urban heating. The idea of a city as a testbed is fundamental to my strategy as Mayor to make Helsinki the most functional city in the world. Now we truly tested this principle to new limits. The urgency of climate action left us with no choice.

We understand that the upcoming energy transition is a huge, multi-level systemic transition. Our assumption was never that through the Challenge we would find one silver bullet that would fix the whole problem at once. But we knew, that by taking this unusual and very bold approach, we would spark discussions and maybe ideas that wouldn’t otherwise have arisen. And at the same time, we’ll take a step, or rather a giant leap, to the right direction.

Now, we have a wide range of solutions in our hands. And most importantly, we have proven that challenges in this scale work and should be used as a tool to solve difficult equations. We have learned tremendously during the process. The biggest winner of the Challenge may be Helsinki itself – and hopefully other cities around the world that would be able to benefit from the knowledge and insight now gathered.

We are now certain that it is possible to heat the city in a sustainable way. But we also realize that this requires a multilevel systemic transition in our energy sector. As Albert Einstein once put it, The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.

What have we learned?

  • The competition clearly showed that the heating system of the future must be flexible. Technological development is fast, but on the other hand, climate change is advancing even faster. Solutions that are put to use now, must be easily changeable, so they’ll leave room for maturing future technologies.
  • The heating system must consist of several sub-solutions and components, several actors and solutions that are optimized to work together. Such a system will significantly challenge the traditional approach and status quo. In the future there are many actors and the coordination of interests requires new thinking and operating models.
  • A system that consists of many elements and actors requires a strong holistic vision to succeed. Otherwise, there is a risk that decisions and investments will lock the city on the wrong path.

Helsinki Energy Challenge not only gave us a wide range of solutions but most importantly,  it opened our eyes to the necessary changes in our whole energy market models. Like with every action, the change is in the hands of the cities and Helsinki is planning to lead that change.

Before announcing the award winners I would like to thank all of you who submitted your ideas to Helsinki Energy Challenge. You were more than 250 and I am forever grateful to all of you. You contributed to something unique, and even if you were not among the finalists, it definitely does not mean that your solution wasn’t good enough. We will do our utmost to share all solutions with other cities, as many cities urgently look for answers to same questions.

I would also like to thank all organizations and people who have helped us throughout the process. There are many of you. By giving your expertise, and by supporting our efforts to spread the word about this important topic. And by promising to help sharing our learnings with other cities. Thank you.

Overall, the jury found the finalist were all high quality proposals and noted that there are interesting approaches and solutions involved – existing, familiar technologies combined in different ways and then new, emerging technologies. Alongside technical solutions, we received also smart market-based approaches.

Eventually after hard work and evaluation, the jury decided to award four strongest proposals, instead of selecting just one winner. And I will now announce them team by team.

  • TEAM HIVE, 350.000 €
  • TEAM BEYOND FOSSILS, 200.000 €
  • TEAM SMART SALT CITY, 200.000 €
  • TEAM HOT HEART, 200.000 €

In addition, the city of Helsinki wanted to give a recognition award to one team whose proposal shows good understanding of the core of the challenge from many relevant viewpoints and perspectives. It comprehensively describes the diversity of the heating challenge and relevant stakeholders and as such, is an eye-opening proposal and will work as a good tool for the City of Helsinki.

The recongition award and 50.000 € goes to: Team “CHP Consumers to Heat Producers”

Congratulations to all!

To me as a Mayor, this challenge gave me hope. It also gave Helsinki some essential tools to dream even bigger and to aim even higher. It proved that besides being one of the greatest challenges of mankind, climate change is also one of the greatest opportunities to build something new and something relevant for the future generations.

It also showed that victory over climate change is more than possible. Clearly the challenge is not the lack of ideas.  Change is not hard or difficult. It is more a question of just thinking the right way and getting things done. Helsinki will lead the way.”


Photo: Yiping Feng and Ling Ouyang