You may not know much about Finland, but you certainly know the powerhouse technology company that became a household name across the globe and drove the nation’s economic expansion through the 1990s-2000s. Nokia generated a quarter of Finnish economic growth from 1998-2007, prompting a new term, ‘the Nokia effect’, to describe economic development powered by a single company’s success. But more recently Nokia has fallen on hard times, and in the wake of the once all-powerful company’s demise a new wave of Finnish technology startups has arisen.
According to The Economist, the Nordic country, with a population of just 5.4 million over a geographical area comparable to Germany, has the most highly educated populace in the world, especially in science and mathematics. Its industry collaborates closely with its well-respected universities. English language skills are very high, and the financial strength of the country (again comparable to Germany in terms of budget surplus and fiscal discipline) make it an attractive place to invest. The result of all this is an environment of startup companies and science parks that wouldn’t be out of place in the original Silicon Valley (Finland’s version is called Arctic Valley).
This high-tech and research focus has benefited other areas of the economy as well. Given Finland’s small population (and the fact that it was largely an agrarian nation until as late as the 1950s), the nation features a surprisingly high number of internationally successful energy companies and could be described as a hotbed of energy research. A recent sampling includes research into hydrogen energy storage, organic solar cells, hydrogen production for fuel cells using fluidised bed gasification of forest biomass (in which field Finland is a world leader), aging and degradation in photoactive layers for solar thermal and photovoltaic applications and nanostructured electrochemical solar cells.
Finland needs energy research: its energy consumption is the second highest in Europe, but it has almost no indigenous fossil fuel resources. It does, however, have forests in abundance. It is a large exporter of wood products and its long-running forest management programme focuses on sustainable production and conservation. Peat, a traditional home heating fuel, is classified as a ‘slowly renewable’ biomass fuel, making up 6 percent of the energy mix.
A member of the EU along with fellow Nordic countries Denmark and Sweden, Finland is subject to European 2020 climate targets as well as additional commitments under the Kyoto protocol. According to the Confederation of Finnish Industries, approximately one third of the nation’s electricity is produced in combined heat and power (CHP) plants, while renewables (largely biomass and hydropower) make up roughly one quarter of Finland’s energy mix.
The nation offers a premium feed-in tariff (FiT) for energy produced from wind, biomass and biogas; additional state subsidies; and a heat bonus for combined heat and power (CHP) plants running on biogas and biomass. Finland has a hydrogen roadmap, funded by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (Tekes), and recent research has shown strong results from gasification of timber industry waste products (some of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies are headquartered in Finland) as well as in the transport sector where plans to power buses with hydrogen fuel cells are ongoing and gas company Woikoski Oy has developed a hydrogen refueling station. The percentage of biofuel required in the transport sector has recently been increased. The country’s climate and energy strategy includes reducing CO2 emissions from road transport by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
This week – along with journalists from Russia, Lithuania and Germany — I’ll be visiting some Finnish companies on a tour organised by FinnFacts, a trade association focused on introducing Finnish industry to the foreign press. On the programme are visits to trade body Finnish Energy Industries for an introduction to the sector; Gasum, Finland’s natural gas company, where we’ll see the results of their latest biogas research; and Aalto University for presentations on greening Finland’s tech industry, what the nation is doing to meet European renewable energy targets, energy efficiency, heat recovery for power generation, and using supercritical steam in solid biomass gasification. We’ll also get to check in with energy giant Wärtsilä to see their new power plant solutions for balancing variable renewables, and make a stop at refiner Neste Oil’s technology centre for a look at their renewable fuels department — the company claims it produces biofuel from over 10 different types of feedstock.
On a side note, I’ll be taking a few hours at the end of my trip to have a look at the first-ever Futuro House, newly restored and open to the public in the Helsinki suburb of Espoo. The 1960s ‘flying saucer house’, made entirely of plastic, is an icon of Finnish design and an instantly recognizable symbol of the nation’s long-standing belief in technology and economic growth. From the look of Finland today, it would seem that this faith has paid off.
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