Helsinki announces four winners in challenge to re-create the future of urban heating

”As a city, we wanted to act responsibly and offer our city as a testbed where the future-proof solutions can be developed — not only for us but also for other cities,” tells project director Laura Uuttu-Deschryvere.
March 26, 2021

As one of the leading cities in the fight against climate change, Helsinki’s goal is to become carbon neutral by 2035. The heating system is at the heart of the battle, as its emissions account for more than half of Helsinki’s total amount. So, The City of Helsinki arranged the year-long international global challenge competition Helsinki Energy Challenge to find future-proof solutions to heat the city during decades to come and get rid of coal by 2029 without the transit to a large scale utilization of biomass-combustion based production.

— We need radically new heating solutions because we want to replace fossil fuels with ”modern solutions”, solutions that are sustainable not only in 10 years but in decades to come. Biomass-combustion based energy production is not a long-term sustainable solution, nor are any combustion-based solutions, they are ”solutions from the past”, Uuttu-Deschryvere states, continuing,

— We believed that through the challenge competition we will manage to inspire bold discussions that wouldn’t otherwise have taken place, and will manage to bring innovators with different backgrounds together, to innovate solutions that wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have been brought to us. And as a city, we wanted to act responsibly and offer our city as a testbed where future-proof solutions can be developed — not only for us but also for other cities.

Among ten finalists, an international jury selected four winners, announced last week.

HIVE. A flexible plan, based on proven technologies and solutions, such as seawater heat pumps, electrical boilers, solar thermal fields, and demand-side management measures; the plan is capable of integrating new technologies if and when these emerge.

Beyond fossils. An energy transition model based on open and technology-neutral clean heating auctions, paving up the path to carbon-neutral Helsinki in a flexible and innovation-enabling way.

Smart Salt City. A solution that melds novel thermochemical energy storage and artificial intelligence with commercially available energy technologies.

Helsinki’s Hot Heart. A flexible system made of 10 floating reservoirs filled with 10 million cubic metres of hot seawater that can receive different energy sources as input. Four of the cylindrical tanks that make up Helsinki’s Hot Heart would be enclosed with inflatable roof structures to create a new leisure attraction.

— I think all 10 finalists’ proposals, as well as award-winning proposals, illustrate the diversity of the heating challenge and the diversity of approaches we need, says Uuttu-Deschryvere, in order to be able to create a resilient and flexible future heating system. We know now that a city can be heated without large combustion-based plants.

— The four winning proposals are different, however, there are of course some same ”elements” included. In general, the clear trend based on the top proposals, as well as many others, of the competition was the ”electrification” of the heating: incorporating electric heating technologies to the heating system was a common theme for many solutions. Also, top ranking proposals emphasized that the heating system of the future must be resilient and flexible — acknowledge upcoming technologies, but not stop to wait for them — and also the optimization of energy production and consumption was emphasized.

Uuttu-Deschryvere shares that what also become clear with the results of the competition was that the heating challenge is not only a technical challenge.

— Some of the proposals took on the challenge by means of operating models. In a heating system of the future, there are many partial solutions and actors — and the integration of interests requires deliberation of operating models and thinking. And somewhat challenges the traditional approaches.

How will you proceed with the technologies? Will you implement them in Helsinki in any way, now or in the future?

— It is clear that the decisions on investments and technologies will be done step by step, Uuttu-Deschryvere says. Now the city is really ”equipped” with learnings and solutions. Helsinki Energy Challenge was a design contest, so the competition entries were ”master plans”, each containing interesting elements. Now the further discussions will continue in co-operation with different stakeholders, such as the city and its energy utility.

— The competition showed that the challenge is not only technical and that the heating system of the future will be made from different partial solutions and actors. And they have to be optimized to work together. The city can play a role in striving to make the heating system as flexible as possible; meaning, that we do not rule out technologies of the future, or, new players, but on the contrary, allow innovation and new entrants.

And what happens next?

— As the City of Helsinki truly wants to be one of the leading cities in the fight against climate change, we want to enable innovation, ”unusual” approaches, and co-operation with different stakeholders and at all levels. So there will definitely be more special projects to come in the future. With Helsinki Energy Challenge, as a next step, we will openly share all our learnings and solutions. we want to make sure that as many cities as possible can learn from our approach and from all solutions we got, and utilize them in their journeys towards a carbon-neutral future.