Helsinki Energy Challenge

Helsinki Energy Challenge

Mayor Vapaavuori: “We wanted to do something creative that would benefit other cities”

The city of Helsinki organised from February 2020 to March 2021 an international design contest to find solutions to phase out its district heating system from coal and gas by 2035. Jan Vapaavuori, Mayor of Helsinki at the time, shares the lessons learned from this Helsinki Energy Challenge”.

 What were the main reasons to launch the Helsinki Energy Challenge?

There were two visions at the origin of this project. First, we were facing a tricky challenge, that we did not know how to solve. Secondly, we wanted other cities to benefit from our actions.

Helsinki is committed to becoming climate-neutral by 2035. Currently, more than 50% of the city’s emissions come from the heating and cooling sector. In addition, from 2029, burning coal to produce energy will be banned in Finland. At the moment, we have two coal-fired Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants supplying the city-wide district heating and cooling (DHC) system. We will close one in 2023, but for the other one we did not have renewable alternatives. We could decide to use biomass instead of coal, which is the common solution. But I do not believe that burning biomass at a massive scale is a sustainable solution either. Thus, once we had excluded biomass, we had no clear answer to how we could decarbonise our DHC grid.

In addition, we want to be a forerunning city, we wanted to do something creative that would benefit other cities, so we invited the rest of the world to help us solve the problem. It was clear from the beginning that some solutions proposed by the competitors could be relevant for other cities. The philosophy of the city of Helsinki is not only to make the city itself climate-neutral, but also to contribute to the efforts of the rest of the world to do the same. We got inspired by the city of New York who has been running this kind of competition already for a while, that they call MoonShot Challenges.

The philosophy of the city of Helsinki is not only to make the city itself climate-neutral, but also to contribute to the efforts of the rest of the world to do the same.

What were the biggest learnings for you?

What I learnt is that it is not enough as a city to own its energy company at 100%, you need to have a deep cooperation with this company, to play a bigger role as a city to solve the biggest challenge of mankind in today’s world. You cannot delegate the problem of decarbonising your heating system to a company, even if you own it up to 100%. Decarbonising heating and cooling is not a mere technical problem.

Another learning is that you need to create a system which is as flexible as possible. We have learnt that technology takes steps forward every single day. We should try to create a system where we do not lock ourselves in technologies which will already be outdated two years later. We need to create an ecosystem which is flexible and adaptable to new technologies in the future. 

Tips for a successful energy challenge

Laura Uuttu-Deschryvere, Project Director of the Helsinki Energy Challenge and Kaisa-Reeta Koskinen, Carbon Neutral Helsinki Project Director, share their feedbacks on the organisation of the Challenge. Useful tips for you to replicate such a contest in your city!

The Helsinki Energy Challenge was organised in two steps: an open application phase in which the city received 232 applications from 35 countries, and then a co-creation phase with ten shortlisted teams. In the first phase, applicants had to convince the jury in a short explanation note that their solutions had the potential to solve the issue and that their team had the capacity to undertake the second phase. In the co-creation phase, the city provided additional information on their DHC systems, so that finalists could propose a detailed masterplan to achieve the city’s decarbonisation goal. There are four factors which can help the contest be a success.

1. Keep the challenge open

The city of Helsinki was not looking for specific technological solutions, but for comprehensive masterplans, integrating innovations and system-thinking to solve their challenge. Thus, they did not define any restrictions to the solutions to be proposed. Due to the huge diversity of the received propositions (from clean heating auctions to spatial solutions to harvest the energy of the solar wind), it was a challenge to evaluate them. The use of different categories could have simplified the selection of finalists, but it would also have oriented proposals from the applicants.

2. Get organised and ready for a two-way learning experience

Given the diversity and the important number of received applications, it required a fair amount of work to evaluate them, and the mobilisation of experts from different backgrounds. Thus, the availability of key persons from the city and its local stakeholders was critical to make the challenge a success. During the second phase, the finalist teams were able to meet the political leaders, the experts from the city, and the actors from the Helsinki energy company. It allowed them to better understand the needs and obstacles faced by the city, while city representatives could be challenged by the innovators, which led to more emulation between participants.

3. Be clear about what you want

Helsinki defined seven criteria to evaluate the masterplans proposed by the finalists: climate impact, impact on natural resources, costs, implementation schedule, feasibility, reliability and security of supply, and thermal capacity. This pushed innovators to take into consideration the various aspects of the city challenge. Helsinki also prepared a set of data for finalists, as well as guiding assumptions, regarding, for instance, the future energy demand of buildings. All teams were thus given the same framework. Assumptions were also necessary due to the confidentiality of some data, or the fact that the city did not have the answers to all the questions of the finalists.

4. Invite international and interdisciplinary teams

Helsinki invited people from all around the world to participate in this challenge: teams from more than 35 countries applied. People external from the local and national situations were able to propose out-of-the-box ideas: it helped bring new knowledge and avoid the fixation effects (being trapped in one category of solutions). The city also selected an international jury of top experts to evaluate the ten finalist propositions and select the awarded ones.

This interview was first published in the September Covenant of Majors for Climate & Energy newsletter


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