We move towards a climate-neutral future, which changes the way we source and use energy. Pirjo Jantunen talks about how city energy is implemented in Helsinki.
What does Helen do?
Helen Ltd. is a trailblazer business that considers today and tomorrow's energy possibilities to build a carbon-neutral energy system, mainly in Finland. Helen is owned by the City of Helsinki and is part of the Helen Group. Our services primarily are electricity production, district heating and cooling, energy distribution and sales, as well as new energy solutions in the field of renewable energy, sector integration and energy efficiency. Our solution business is a relatively new business area, but we are rapidly growing.
What would you say is the most exciting service Helen is offering now?
I think it is not precisely one service but the transformation – the thing that as a utility provider, this company has been working for 110 years or so. We have been producing power, bringing district heating & cooling and electricity to our customers. Now we are transforming a traditional energy utility into a more customer-focused modern business by offering a wider variety of services such as electric mobility, solar power and energy management services.
So, you are bringing an essential need for energy into a more innovative light. What is your role in Helen?
I work at Helen as Business Development Manager in the Smart Buildings unit. We are developing smart services to decrease our client's energy usage and emissions. Energy efficiency services and building-specific heating solutions, e.g. ground sourced heat pumps, are the main areas that I work with.
How do people in Finland perceive renewable energy - do all feel the need to move to cleaner energy? Or is it more of a governmental initiative?
For some people, it is easy to embrace it, but some are not that interested. Even though there is general support for renewables, I think practical solutions should be more accessible for people to reach them and understand them. For example, if people want to do energy renovation at their homes or business, at the moment, they have to know a lot about energy. They have to be enthusiastic and research to understand the services that are offered because different services might be complex and difficult to compare. As energy companies, we have the responsibility to make our services a lot easier to understand & buy. Of course, we have to have all on board: – people, the government and businesses.
Pirjo shared this graphic below that asked people's opinions on how to develop energy production in Finland. For non-Finnish speakers, dark purple means"increase"; purple "keep the same", grey "do not know", and yellow "decrease".
The energy sources from top to down: Solar, Wind, Hydro, Wood and other bioenergy, Nuclear, Natural gas, Peat, Import, Oil, Coal. As it can be seen from the graphic, participants are hugely in favour of increasing solar while the most decrease seems to be in Coal followed by Oil.
So, do you think there is a missing communication link out there regarding the knowledge about energy?
I think there is - there are people who know a lot, but not all of us are that interested in energy. And that is totally okay; people should be allowed to have different priorities. That is why we are developing our services to be easy to use. I am happy to see government and municipalities also working as a link towards emission reductions.
For example, a big project called "Energy Renaissance" started in the city of Helsinki, and they are hiring a lot of energy experts for the project. The energy experts are offering their knowledge to housing companies. The project has recently begun, so there are no concrete results yet. Still, I think it is vital that they are working on this issue because Helsinki has ambitious climate policies, and the city is doing a lot in its buildings. Still, most of the buildings in the city are owned by private owners, and via the project, the city is encouraging them to increase the energy efficiency of their buildings.
What do you think are the most significant economic challenges for people to get into renewable energy? Is it competitively cheap as the other ones? How does Finland face to move to renewable energy?
In energy production, renewables have been competitive for a while, and as a result, 80% of Finland's electricity is already low carbon.
In the small-scale production at the building level, solar power is somewhat competitive. Especially now, there is a new law that allows the residents of the housing company to share solar energy, so that makes it more attractive. Also, for building-specific heating solutions, ground sourced heat pumps are competitive in many cities. But also, building level production requires investment; even though it would make sense to invest in renewable energy, you would still need the financial sources to get it in the first place. It is a rather big decision for private homeowners.
You have been active in many organisations like World Energy Council's Future Energy Leaders Program as the program Chair; the Green Building Council in Finland, and as Finland's Clean Energy Ambassador at International Energy Agency's (IEA) Clean Energy Education and Empowerment(C3E) Technology Programme while also working; how do you manage this? Is it passion and motivation that allows you to do this work?
*laughs* Yes, it is the motivation and passion. It is after regular work hours, so if you are not passionate about it, you won't really do it.There is always time and energy for the things you are passionate about, so it is how you prioritise it.
What are your dreams/projects for the future after being so involved in various organisations and accumulating this much knowledge?
Well, we all know that the climate crisis is an urgent issue that we all need to work on all levels. So, we need more action. I dream that it wouldn't be only talking about targets and visions. I want to see them become real. We have to make difficult decisions too. I hope we'll be prepared for that.
Do you think Finland's carbon emission goal is achievable considering how the government is acting/reacting?
I think the government is mainly focusing on the Covid issue right now; I understand that. But Covid has been around for more than a year, and it has also shown us that we can make significant changes in our societies if needed. In terms of climate actions, we see that some individuals do what they can by not consuming much, recycling, etc., but I don't think it should be left only to individual action. Still, I am rather optimistic, even though I am not completely satisfied with the government's precautions. Companies are also working on it, and there have been significant changes, so the decrease of carbon emissions in Finland's energy sector looks promising.
Thank you so much! This conversation is so inspiring; I am sure it will be fascinating for our students and readers to get a perspective from you as someone active in the industry and other organisations.
You can find out more about Helen Ltd. here.
Note: This interview has been conducted by Carolina Garcia, transcribed and edited by Merve Özcaner