Vision – zero energy telecommunications

Could the technical solutions used in telecommunications be developed to the point where ‘zero energy’ is achieved? Here’s Key Account Manager Tapio Rauma’s answer. Tapio Rauma VTT

Much room for technical development remains, despite the long history of electric communications.

Decades elapsed between the first version of the telegraph and the first phone call, in which the inventor of the telephone, Graham Bell, uttered the famous words, “Mister Watson, come here, I need you,” to his assistant Thomas Watson.

It now seems that 4G barely had time to settle in before 5G began hitting the streets. The development cycle of just under ten analogue and digital telephone systems has been completed in about the time that separated the telegraph from the first phone call. In the same period, the transmission of data has shifted continuously from cable-based, electromagnetic signals to wireless radio traffic.

Wireless communication is not ultimately wireless. Even pocket devices only work independently for a limited time; to be recharged, they need to be connected to the power grid for hours at a time, at regular intervals. So much for being wireless.

Base stations, which mobile devices connect to via radio signals, also depend on the power grid. While a base station can already communicate wirelessly, it cannot work without electricity cables. Given the need for base stations and other systems to control network components, electricity is becoming even more important.

Because of large energy needs

A range of evaluations have been performed of electricity consumption by, and carbon dioxide emissions from, telecommunications systems. Naturally, such assessments tend to link telecommunications to ICT systems as a whole. The carbon footprint of ICT devices remains under 5% of the total, but their share is growing continually. It is generally believed that power consumption will continue to double in cycles of around five years.

The electricity bill of European telecommunication network operators accounts for around 20% of their overall cost budget (OPEX). Finnish operators use over 0.5 TWh per year, which is equal to the annual production of Kemijoki’s largest hydropower plant and around 1.5 months of production by the type of nuclear reactor used in Loviisa.

You get what you order

The energy consumption of telecommunications has not yet been properly optimised. Resources have been allocated to achieve huge data transmission capacity; naturally, every effort has been made to succeed in this, which has required faster computing components, equipped with multi-core processors, in smaller and smaller casings. This has resulted in greater power consumption and greater, electricity-guzzling cooling needs due to problems with overheating. In addition, the move to higher frequencies requires a denser base-station network, increasing the number of electricity-consuming base stations.

What’s the solution?

Ten years ago, the construction industry had reached the point where a detached house, well constructed based on the technology of its time, was gorging on heating energy by current standards. It is now possible to build very low-energy buildings using conventional methods, due to improvements in building materials, regulations and, above all, greater public awareness of energy issues. With more investment in the issue, buildings can even produce energy. This means plus-energy construction.

The advent of plus-energy buildings has been made possible by a number of technical improvements and tools. These include the development of windows, qualitative and quantitative improvements in insulation, more-efficient heating technologies like the introduction of heat pump technology, and a range of new energy sources – such as solar and wind power – integrated into buildings.

But could the technical solutions used in telecommunications be developed to the point where ‘zero energy’ is achieved? The answer is, of course, yes. For example, the power consumption of devices could be reduced using electronics that consume less energy than now. Together with energy harvesting (solar, wind and vibrations etc.) and fuel cells, advanced battery technology is moving us into the age of telecommunications without power cables. The software used in devices has not been optimised at all. Additionally, rising cooling needs have led to the construction of better coolers instead of more efficient hardware and software.

Zero energy telecommunications should be viewed as a situation in which telecommunications devices function optimally in terms of energy consumption, and for long stretches without external energy sources. The term ‘energy autonomous device’ will become more and more familiar. Development is now happening on several fronts.

To quote very freely from J.F.Kennedy’s famous speech on the lunar missions: “We choose to study this not because it is easy, but because it is very hard. This is a challenge big enough for us to get our teeth into.”

Tapio Rauma, Key Account Manager
Twitter: @TapioRauma

Major changes ahead for district heating

Many of us live in apartments that are warmed by district heating. In our daily lives, it doesn’t necessarily occur to us how effortlessly our apartments are warmed and that breaks in heating are rare, brief and barely affect our comfort. Radiators and thermostatic radiator valves, which we don’t even need to touch to maintain a pleasant indoor temperature, are all that remind us of heating. However, district heating will most likely undergo major changes over the next decade.

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District heating has a long history. The world’s first systems were implemented at the end of the 1800s. In Finland, the distribution of district heating began in places such as Helsinki and Espoo in the 1950s. Most district heating is still produced by either combined heat and power plants, or separate heating plants. However, the trend is shifting from the current third-generation district heating towards fourth-generation district heating systems. The long-term trend has seen improvements in the energy efficiency of district heating and a fall in water temperature levels during the transition to the next generation.

District heating is more and more often being produced from renewable energy sources and various types of waste heat, which would otherwise remain unused. For example, several data centres have recently been built whose facilities generate a great deal of heat. Waste heat of this kind is already being used as a source of district heating. In the sample calculations for the EFEU research project, carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by half, while a fifth of the district heating produced for the studied area comprised waste heat from the data centre.

Towards changing markets

The district heating markets are also changing. An open, two-way district heating network means one that both distributes district heating to consumers and enables customers or individual heat producers to sell their surplus or other generated heat to the network. This could mean a major increase in the share of, say, solar power or large thermal heat pumps in district heat production. In the EFEU project, it was observed that, since solar and geothermal heat saw the biggest increase during the twenty-year study period, the need for centrally produced heat fell by 34%.

In an open district heating production structure, the operators will also change. Someone must take responsibility for the trade in heat and the related production and demand management. It must be decided under what terms and with what technical solutions trade can be made possible, how demand during peak consumption can be met in all circumstances and how investments will be made.

As the temperature levels of district heating water fall, household heating systems will have to be upgraded. The latest systems are so-called low-temperature systems, whose radiators – for example – are bigger than the current ones. Changes can be implemented during other renovations, which makes them cheaper than when done separately. A building’s heating distribution system would then be ready for either the person’s own renewable energy system, or for the new network – freedom to choose is a blessing.

In the future, network operators may also encourage customers (by using tariffs, for example) to prepare for connection to a low-temperature network. For network operators, lowering the network temperature will open up new markets, such as the possibility to buy and utilise cheap waste heat. In addition, energy-renovated buildings previously disconnected from the network in an ‘old district heating network’ area could reconnect, or new buildings with their own heat production could be connected for the first time. In practice, however, changes in buildings’ systems will occur in stages and only in new district heating areas to begin with.

EFEU research project

Energy system scenarios were created via the Efficient Energy Use (EFEU) programme coordinated by CLIC Innovation Ltd. The scenarios involved research on increasing the use of solar heat and geothermal heat pumps, industrial waste heat recovery, and the impact on energy and emissions of small-scale producers selling heat to consumers. These options were explored in a case study of the Central Uusimaa district heating network.

The publication, ”Visions for future energy efficient district energy systems”, is available online at: http://www.vtt.fi/inf/pdf/technology/2016/T277.pdf

The report sets out visions of the energy systems of the future and the current status of systems connectible to district heating in Finland. The publication describes the challenges, needs and scenarios related to future business activities and services.

Satu Paiho, Senior Scientist

Rinat Abdurafikov, Research Scientist

Theme energy: The world of IoT comes home

VTT arranged the “Growth from the energy transition” seminar in Helsinki on 13 September 2016. During the event, VTT’s extensive know-how in the energy sector – the related research findings, scenarios and visions – was showcased. Together with our partners, we also pondered the energy revolution and growth prospects in Finland. The seminar themes are explored in more detail in our energy-themed blog series.

A wide range of visions have been presented and produced on the future of energy consumption in homes. One of the most familiar is the idea of the energy-flexible home. In addition, houses can be energy self-sufficient or, where appropriate, even generate energy for others.

The new technologies currently being tried and tested will provide the consumers of the future with the opportunity to consider various new, alternative types of energy production. As an example, let’s take the illustration in the picture of how a home of the future, with printed and energy-sensitive surfaces, might look. The wall surfaces and decorations could be energy-generating, in accordance with the situation. A table cloth, wall decoration, wallpaper or a computer’s surface could generate energy from ambient light. According to this vision, the design of living environments built around incoming light will gain a stronger foothold.

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Future home.

In addition to gathering ambient energy, such a home could be smart and gather information on its surroundings and its own functions, communicating such information to cloud services or other devices. In this case, part of a home or office could be the subject of negotiated flexibility based on an agreed electricity contract, within the limits of the operational possibilities. The flexible use of energy is therefore dependent upon a definition according to the situation in question.

Consumer information and new services

In addition to energy systems, domestic appliances could ‘tell’ other devices about their own situation and ‘converse’ with each other. At the moment, it looks as though a platform economy is forming in which the so-called Internet of Things has a huge number and variety of actors at different levels. All manufacturers of home appliances and consumer electronics, and makers of sauna stoves or electricity meter readers, seem to be reaching out to consumers. Consumer information and its combination with other data appears to be the key to the new services. The impact of flexible energy consumption could be difficult to calculate in the absence of connected-up data. The greatest potential is thought to lie in the change in business models and new business opportunities. A wide range of estimates have also been made on the sums of money that the forthcoming IoT and platforms will involve worldwide.

Despite the great difficulty in estimating these sums, the change can be viewed as an opportunity in general. To ensure business continuity, it is important to identify the elements involved in such change. Legislation and various initiatives, technological transitions and standards will have an impact on activities in the long term.

For example, legislation can be used to define certain data as important to society and to rule that it must be open by law. What would the impact on business activities be if data generated by energy meters was defined as important to society and therefore open? This would avoid a closed system and data could be combined with other data, creating added value. There would undoubtedly be a major impact on business. Such situations are familiar in another context. Services related to payment services, in particular, are changing. The new Payment Services Directive will oblige banks to open up their own databases to third parties. External service vendors will gain access to a bank’s payment transactions. On behalf of customers, service vendors will be able to manage payments mainly online and through mobile channels. In fact, payments concern all services and both banks and other actors are now being consulted on the services to which payments can be connected. It is quite possible that this change will also cover energy solutions.

The role of the consumer is highlighted in the digital society. Consumers are interested in data related to their own activities and are becoming more interested in data and activities defined just for them. Digitalisation brings the service vendor closer to the consumer – the better digital services serve the consumer, the more certain it is that they will be used. Based on an integrated picture of household consumption and production, digital services can increasingly free consumers from vendor dependency. From the consumer’s perspective, the more flexibly and easily services work, the more attractive they are. Easy and clear switching between power supply agreements, comparison of terms and conditions, and integration of financial transactions with other services are already increasing consumer awareness of the alternatives and mobility on the energy markets.

To whom does data belong?

The transition will be based on a range of factors – such as regulations – and their combinations. To whom does data created by the internet, lamps, sauna stoves or televisions in households belong? This subject is so important that the European Commission has drawn attention to the matter by considering the rights to data within business chains. Another similar, but further advanced, regulation is the General Data Protection Regulation or the GDPR, which will define people’s right to their own data when it enters into force in 2018.

Secondly, standards are important when wondering what kinds of data communication layers to create. There are a number of initiatives and VTT is involved in several standards organisations and ventures. Thirdly, the technological revolution is unlikely to happen in isolation, but will require a suitable setting within the business environment. Although block chain technology is a new technical term, the passion surrounding it seems to have spread beyond the IT community. The term becomes more familiar when associated with the concept of virtual money and the word ‘bitcoin’. In this case, the interesting thing is that no single operator has centralised control over the data.  It is said that transparency and decentralization make this approach trustworthy. Examples are merely illustrative right now, but a moment may arrive when an electrical device can securely report energy quantities to a block chain.  The vision could consist of IoT devices making agreements with each other and engaging in regulated commerce in situations involving energy flexibility.

Tuomo Tuikka, Research Manager
Twitter: @tttuomo

Energy efficiency is the key component of sustainable development in cities

miimu_airaksinen

The UN Habitat New Urban Agenda was released a few weeks in Quito, Equador. The task to write a new urban agenda has not been easy, given that pre-conditions and interests are different in different UN countries. At the same time, there is an urgent need to act in favour of sustainable development in cities.

The striking fact is that urban settlements covers roughly 2.7% of the surface area of the globe, but consume 70% of resources and hence produces 75% of CO2 emissions. Moreover, we face many challenges if we are to transform our cities into healthy, safe and comfortable living and working areas.

Starting from these pre-conditions, the New Urban Agenda for the first time highlights the importance of energy. As is well-known, energy production is the main source of CO2 emissions and air quality problems in cities. Energy is needed in cities for transport, heating, cooling, lighting as well as for water and sanitary systems. We also need energy to run equipment and appliances. To transform ourselves into low carbon society, we need to de-carbonise our energy production, but also, very importantly, we need to use energy more efficiently. Energy that does not need to be produced is the most environmental friendly. Energy efficiency is not only beneficial in preventing pollution but is also a key component for resilient cities. Energy efficiency entails reducing overall demand and more importantly reducing peak demand. In combination with smart technologies, demand can be controlled based on self-learning and adaptive algorithms to reduce and shift the demand even more efficiently without compromising users’ well-being, but rather in ways that can also further enhance well-being.

Smart cities and efficient resources

In addition to energy, the concept of smart cities was for the first time raised onto the agenda. The concept of smart cities is quite unique, since it is applicable both to industrialised cities/districts and to developing economies. The benefit of smart cities is that by using easy-to-install and adaptable sensors and self-learning control algorithms, existing infrastructure can be made more efficient. Moreover, new methods allow for generating urban services more efficiently in developing countries, without heavy and costly infrastructure requirements. Good examples for this are the implementation of renewable energy sources for cities and communities. In addition, smart communications enable citizen engagement and ownership within their own living areas, which evidently improves the perceived living quality and attractiveness of the area.

Smart systems enable us to use our resources more efficiently. This can be done by using and combining data from different sources. Currently, in modern buildings, there are typically over 20 000 data points, and hence in cities there exists an unimaginable amount of data; it is evident that no-one has the capacity to process all the data. We need, therefore, smart self-learning and predictive systems to make the most of the data available. One of the leading principles in smart cities is to enrich data to create meaningful information that supports our decision-making and helps in making our everyday lives run smoothly and that helps us to achieve environmental sustainability. More importantly, this saves time for the most important things in our lives.

Miimu Airaksinen
Research Professor
UN Habitat Policy Unit 9

Miimu Airaksinen was nominated in 2015 as an expert for the United Nations Policy Unit 9 on Urban Services and Technology to prepare the UN urbanization strategy.

Twitter: @MiimuAiraksinen

Theme energy: From optimising the energy production mix towards new services

VTT arranged the ‘Growth from the energy transition’ seminar on 13 September 2016, in Helsinki. During the event, we showcased VTT’s extensive know-how in the energy sector – the related research findings, scenarios and visions. Together with our partners, we also pondered the energy transition and growth prospects for Finland. In this blog series “Theme energy”, we take a closer look at the themes of the seminar. Vice President, Smart energy and transport solutions, Tuula Mäkinen starts the series with a summary.

Tuula_Mäkinen

To take advantage of the new business potential rising in the energy transition, we need to develop new, comprehensive services. Seeking a new optimal energy production mix while separately optimising energy use will not be enough. We are in a changing situation in which energy consumers can also serve as energy producers; we therefore need to take a holistic view of energy production and consumption. We also need to combine new technologies and business models much more rapidly.

Energy is becoming more about services, and revenue models are changing. Within energy systems, value is shifting from energy units to flexible resources.

Buildings will become a more active part of the energy system in the future. From the energy-saving perspective, we are moving towards optimal production of good indoor conditions and from sales by energy units towards the sale of comfort and living-condition services.

At VTT, work is under way on the development of new services, based on a novel approach to the optimisation of living conditions and energy consumption. For example, indoor living conditions and comfort can be improved and energy saved by combining predictive control based on weather data and energy prices with information on human comfort using the Human Thermal Model, developed by VTT.

Technology development has accelerated and we have seen a number of technology leaps. In recent years, the greatest advance in energy production technologies has been in reducing the production costs of solar and wind energy.

Finland is a world leader

Finland is at the forefront of many areas of energy technology. We are internationally strong in areas such as smart grids, combined heat and power production, district heating and cooling, and the development of integrated and hybrid solutions.

Finland’s digitalisation expertise provides outstanding opportunities for the creation and implementation of new services, since such services are closely linked to the transfer and use of data, and to mobile devices.

The energy transition offers new opportunities

New models of cooperation and the desire for renewal are needed in the current transition. New players have appeared in the energy sector. Sectoral boundaries are disappearing, which means that different sectors need to engage in cooperation, renewal and risk-taking. The start-up culture and new business models, such as crowdsourcing, are enabling experiments and the introduction of totally new services and products. Promoting a culture of experimentation is important.

The piloting and demonstration play an important part in the development of innovations and new technologies, and in accelerating their commercialisation. Piloting of individual technologies has given way to holistic and business model piloting. Piloting and demo projects are increasingly often about extensive ecosystem projects between several players. In support of growth and exports, it is important to have references for Finnish expertise.

A good example of the new approach would be the Living Lab Bus joint project, coordinated by VTT and launched in the Helsinki metropolitan area in early 2016, which is using Helsinki Region Transport’s Finnish-made electric buses as a practical R&D platform. The goal is to create a new type of everyday development environment for accelerating the product development of companies by means of agile experiments, in close cooperation with end-users and research institutions.

In the future, the role of consumers will grow, while their needs and opportunities to influence will be emphasised. We need to understand what kinds of services and products consumers want and need, and we should encourage them to experiment and participate in the related development.

In Finland we have excellent opportunities to grow into an international piloting platform and a forerunner market for new energy systems and new solutions, and thereby enhance export opportunities of Finnish industry in global competition. We have already seen good progress achieved for example by utilising public procurement.

Tuula Mäkinen
Vice President, Smart energy and transport solutions

Tuula.makinen (a) vtt.fi, +358 50 301 4661

From the earth you came and to recycling you shall go!

Satu Pasanen

It is November 2013. A cemetery in Tampere is illuminated by candles on All Saints’ Day. I have come to visit the grave of a relative. As I leave, I notice a skip for collecting plastic candles. It is filled with just about everything imaginable, even heather. However, among the other junk is a fair number of twisted plastic casings once used for candles. I remember thinking how much of this waste there was and wondering what could be done with it: we can’t just take it all to landfill or burn it for energy. While pondering this issue over the weekend, I write a project proposal brimming with typos for my colleagues. I even manage to mix the words “crave” and “grave”! While the typos provide long-lasting entertainment, the actual project concept fails to catch on, despite preliminary background research showing how much plastic waste gathers at cemeteries. The recycling of plastic waste as a secondary material from consumer products has yet to gather momentum.

Each year, between 3.4 and 6.5 tonnes of plastic waste gathers in Tampere’s largest – 17-hectare – cemetery alone. Similarly, around 240–250 tonnes of memorial candles are collected each year from the Parish Union of Helsinki’s 76-hectare Honkanummi Cemetery. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland has around a thousand cemeteries, but limited statistical data makes it difficult to estimate the amount of plastic waste these generate. There are also regional variations in candle traditions: estimates suggest that more memorial candles are used in eastern than western Finland. Despite this, even cautious estimates suggest that there is a huge amount of plastic waste. The plastic casing from used memorial candles still forms part of the municipal waste from cemeteries. These can be used in energy production if there is a local waste burning plant.

Plastic forms a large part of mixed waste

The packaging industry is the largest part of the European plastics sector, accounting for 39.5% (in 2014) of all sectors in which plastic is used. It is no surprise then that most plastic in mixed waste consists of packaging materials, such as various grades of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). According to a recycling pilot carried out by waste management company Pirkanmaa Jätehuolto in 2014, plastic accounted for an average of 18% of mixed waste by weight (wt%). This means 32kg of plastic waste per person per year. A sorting study by the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority (HSY) in 2015 found that plastic accounted for around 16 wt% of mixed waste, or 28kg of plastic waste per person per year.

Residents of the Helsinki Metropolitan Area generated an estimated 187,000 tonnes of mixed waste in 2015, of which the plastic fraction accounted for over 30,000 tonnes. That is a lot of plastic. Are residents of the Helsinki area more environmentally aware? We shall see, based on the forthcoming new information on the share of plastic of mixedwaste in Pirkanmaa. In August to September 2016, Pirkanmaan Jätehuolto Oy is conducting a waste composition study as part of the Laatujäte (Quality Waste) project funded by the Ministry of the Environment. The aim of this project is to develop waste composition research and gain an insight into Finland’s average mixed waste production.

It is May 2015. After many twists and turns, the Relight project is under way. The decision has been taken to trial the use of plastic parts of memorial candles as secondary material in a project involving VTT Ltd, Innolux, Merocap Oy and Oy All-Plast Ab. A group of secondary school students has arrived at VTT to learn about recycling and material development, as well as to sort memorial candles collected during the winter. The yard is filled with the sound of cheerful chatter. Candles quickly find their way to the right place and the job is soon done and rewarded with financial support for the school’s camp fund. But the more important issue is what these young people learn about recycling and environmental awareness. Changing attitudes from childhood on.

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Image 1. (left) Research Scientist Satu Pasanen talks to secondary school pupils from Hervanta, Tampere, about VTT’s research facilities and material research. (right) The sorting of the memorial candles by plastic material and brand was led by Research Engineer Timo Flyktman. (Images: Tommi Vuorinen)

Soon after being sorted, the candle casings are turned into plastic granules via a multi-phase process at VTT ‘s facility in Tampere The result is first-class recycled material, whose plastic component is one hundred percent collected from the cemetery. A partner creates injection-moulded design objects from the plastic (Image 2). They are amazing. It’s time for the sceptics to eat their words – dirty plastic fractions discarded by consumers have now been used as a raw material for a new product.

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Image 2. (left) Secondary plastic raw material produced at VTT and (right) injection-moulded plastic objects made from such material. (Images: Satu Pasanen)

Recycle your plastic!

Minor delays notwithstanding, the recycling of plastic packaging became possible for consumers this year, due to the new packaging decree (518/2014) under the Waste Act. Recycling has already become part of consumers’ daily lives, with over 500 collection skips for plastic packaging appearing at recycling points (Image 3). Officially opened in June, Ekokem’s Circular Economy Village is now processing plastic packaging waste gathered at recycling points around Finland. The packaging recycling target is 16 wt% and will rise to 22 wt% in four years’ time.

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Image 3. Skips for collecting plastic packaging waste from consumers. (Image: Satu Pasanen)

Plastic is ideal for recycling. From the materials development perspective, the production of secondary materials and new applications is successful when we understand the characteristics of different grades of plastic, the purity criteria of various applications, and the required physical properties. Of course, we cannot forget about the role played by price and values. The most sought-after type is the cleanest possible plastic film waste containing only one type of plastic, which is ideal for – say – injection-moulded goods ranging from tubs to design products. Although the R&D associated with this sounds simple, time and formidable expertise are needed to develop the plastic materials and applications. Such time and expertise are available at VTT.

From oil to plastic and from plastic to energy

Around 4–6% of the world’s oil production is used to make plastic. Around 311 million tonnes (Mt) of plastic raw material is created from this oil (the 2014 figure does not include fibres). European plastics production accounts for 59 Mt of this amount. European consumers generated 25.8 Mt of plastic waste in 2014 (Image 4). Of this, a third ended up in recycling, a third went to landfill and the rest was burned to produce energy. Around a hundred million barrels of oil were needed to produce the 7.9 Mt of plastic waste which ended up as landfill. From the earth you came, and society wants you to return to the earth – from oil to plastic and from plastic to oil. But this process – of biodegradation in geological time – takes too long: the dumped plastic waste could have been utilized. Around 7.7 Mt of plastic was recycled.

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Image 4. Breakdown of plastic waste created by consumers by type of end-use (information source: http://www.plasticseurope.org).

However, the amount of recycled plastic has grown steadily in Europe over the last ten years. On the other hand, a significant amount of plastic waste still ends up in landfill in many countries. Our western neighbour, Sweden, whose restrictions – dating back to 2005 – on the amount of plastic ending up in landfill have succeeded in lowering the dumped amount to 10%, sets an excellent example of making good use of waste. Almost half of municipal waste (about 2.2 Mt) in Sweden ends up in energy production. Energy production from plastic came to Pirkanmaa in 2016, in the form of a power plant opened in Tampere by the energy firm, Tammervoima, which uses waste as fuel.

It is August 2016 The cemetery looks beautiful, with the last summer flowers still blooming among the graves. I pay my respects to my deceased relative and take a look at the skip for plastic candles (Image 5) on my way back to my car. It is still full of all kinds of rubbish. I sigh, perhaps partly in relief and partly in disappointment: secondary materials are already a reality, even if there is still a long way to go in terms of recycling plastic. But much more time will be needed to change attitudes.

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Image 5. Collection skip for plastic from candles in the Kalevankangas cemetery in Tampere 13 August 2016. (Images: Satu Pasanen)

Satu Pasanen, Research Scientist

The sources of this blog include various Parish unions, the church’s central administration, and oral and written information on waste management, as well as material on the plastics industry published by the PlasticsEurope Association of Plastics Manufacturers (Plastics – The Facts 2015) and material on the energy industry published by the Pöyry Management Consulting Oy (”Jätteiden energiahyödyntäminen Suomessa”).

An energy revolution is on its way in the construction sector

“Do you have your own energy expert?” asks the ‘RANE – energy-related advice for housing and building’ guide to energy-efficient dwelling. I bet that few builders of detached houses or owners of housing association shares would raise their hands.

The energy solutions available when building detached houses, or for housing associations, present consumers with a labyrinth of issues. While worrying about plot location, room layout, HVAC design and many other issues, residents also need to worry about the planning of various energy solutions. In addition, they need to find the right experts at the right time who are able to present options, install equipment and provide them with the assurance they need that their chosen energy solution will continue to be cost-efficient and easy to adjust, use and maintain in the future. Control and adjustment can become very complex if hybrid solutions are chosen that combine various types of energy production such as ground heat, solar power and water-heating fireplaces.  On the other hand, digitalised and wireless systems increase the need for a new kind of ‘brand management’ of building technology.

For consumers, energy is at its best when it is ‘on tap’, keeps their toes warm and the bills aren’t a headache.   Convenience, reliability and affordability are the keywords for consumers when making energy choices related to residence and building.

Increased production of distributed solar energy and wind power –and a range of new, intelligent building technology solutions – are attracting greater media attention as each day goes by. Despite this, housing is seldom marketed on the basis of renewable energy. For example, renewable energy options barely featured at the Asta fair for consumers held in Tampere in February; heat pumps were pretty well all that was on offer for small-scale builders – which is what they are most likely to choose. This is a familiar, tried and tested technology with a reasonable payback period that is an easy fit with home packages and basic HVAC solutions. And it is clearly available. So, is the development of residential energy solutions being dictated by supply? Shouldn’t it be consumer preferences that decide how the energy markets transform and ‘green up’?

For alternative energy solutions to become easy and automatic for builders in the same way as heat pumps – and for renewable energy to play a greater role in house purchasing decisions – experts in house building, building technology and HVAC design and implementation will have to be brought into the mix. This will put the spotlight on building companies, chief designers, HVAC designers, construction consultants advising home builders, and home package companies.   In addition, municipalities could play a greater role via planning and the terms and conditions of conveyancing.

The transition in residential energy towards renewable, distributed and energy-efficient solutions is a prime example of systemic change. Consumers and equipment manufacturers cannot kick off such transitions on their own. Many new energy solutions are already sufficiently mature, in technical terms, to conquer the markets. However, embedded practices, routines and overspecialisation present barriers to their wider use.

This is a question of a broader socio-technical change, in which technical and social factors intertwine. At best, the result is new types of consumers, equipment suppliers, business models and regulatory and contractual arrangements. Innovative business models – such as those based on the rental of solar panels and budding enthusiasm to engage in the self-production of energy within a distributed network, also among housing companies – suggest that a residential energy revolution of some kind is at hand. In addition, demand for energy services is increasing. Time will tell whether standard solutions arise from these new practices.

Maria Åkerman, Principal Scientist 

Nina Wessberg, Senior Scientist