What’s invisible, smart and changing the world?

Imagine an invisible force that can move material swiftly from place to place, flash images of faraway lands instantly before our eyes, or shine light on darkness at the flick of a wrist. Our ancestors would have called it magic, but it’s what we know as the force of electricity. Ever since humans first saw lightening in the sky and called it the work of the gods, our vision of energy has been linked to the miraculous. And in today’s world it is wielded not by magicians or gods but by smart, sustainable technologies and human ingenuity.

Energy is more than just kilowatt hours

I recently joined VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. from the management team of an electricity company, where I spent fifteen years in customer service, witnessing the changing pace of energy in our lives.  I came to understand that energy distribution means more than just selling electrons or kilowatt hours. Energy is smarter than that. Energy can equal a good cup of coffee or a comfortable commute. It can be about finding shelter or having a secure home with clean indoor air. Energy can also be about our ability to apply environmental technology to promote low-carbon lifestyles and fight climate change.

What is smart energy?

In my new position as the Co-Creation Manager at VTT, you could say I’ve moved from selling energy to selling the idea of energy, which brings me to the question: what is Smart Energy?

If I ask a customer, they might talk to me about Smart Energy as a service enabler that will change their way of doing business. If I ask one of the experts on my team, I might get a more technical answer about what happens when energy meets digital technology. Then if I ask a city manager, the answer may be different again, to do with how new smart grid infrastructure will affect the quality of life for citizens.

The answer comes from a shared vision

So I continue to ask the question: what is Smart Energy? The most comprehensive answer I can get is through what VTT does best. That is, bringing together wide cross-sector groups into what we call living laboratories. The Smart Otaniemi project as a smart energy innovation ecosystem among customers, technology experts, and the Espoo municipality is a case in point.

To realize a shared understanding and vision of what Smart Energy is, we need everyone at the table. We need these broad ecosystems, cross-cutting value chains, co-creating new solutions, bringing in new actors and new businesses, as well as combining pilots to find synergies.

Who will be teaching whom in our energy future?

To understand this shared Smart Energy vision, we also need to look beyond the present set-up. Clearly, the rising economies outside Europe, where renewable energy consumption is exploding, will soon lead the world in green energy. Smart energy is more easily applied to the light footed rising economies with little or no existing infrastructure, leaving them free to experiment. If we look at the history of energy in Europe, the US and China, growth came from substantially from coal. But now Smart Energy is changing the map. Africa is becoming the first region in the world to power its economic development on renewable energy rather than fossil fuel and India looks set to become the world’s largest energy consumer. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, global electricity use looks set to double over the next 20 years. But the good news is that renewable energy sources should represent almost three quarters of the estimated $10.2 trillion the world is to invest in new power generating technology between now and 2040.

So as a newly appointed Smart Energy visionary, I have my answer: Smart Energy means combining energy with the power of technology and the power of partnership to co-create a cleaner, greener, and higher-quality life. And as a mother of two children, I would add, while leaving the world a better place than we found it.

Read more:  www.vttresearch.com/services/sustainable-and-smart-city/energy 
Sanna Öörni
Co-Creation Manager, Smart Industry and Energy Systems



This is the first in a series of VTT Smart Energy blogs, bringing you the very newest thinking and action around Smart Energy. Stay tuned for our next blog in August: “Finnish energy companies will conquer the world or will they?”, by Juha Hämekoski, Head of Sales and Customer Partnerships

First steps taken towards a low-carbon society, but marathon still lies ahead


World statesmen decided to give a Christmas present to future generations, agreeing to mitigate global warming by one and a half degrees Celsius this century. To achieve this goal, we will need to make the transition to a low-carbon society before 2050.

Prime Minister Sipilä’s Government has begun preparing Finland’s energy and climate strategy, which should provide milestones for Finland’s progress towards becoming a low-carbon society. The strategy looks ahead to 2030, in line with the next goal of the European Union’s framework for climate and energy policies.

Finland has already achieved a broad consensus on combating climate change – and has developed the required willpower. On the other hand, since there are many paths towards a low-carbon Finland, the challenge lies in finding a range of measures to which we are all ready to commit.

Roadmap to a low carbon society

In the period 2012–2014, VTT was coordinating a multidisciplinary project funded by Tekes, the Low Carbon Finland 2050 platform. The main objective of the project has been to sketch out alternative low-carbon paths and scenarios for Finland, to be analysed by a diverse group of experts. A range of computational modelling tools was used to assess the impact on Finland’s energy and national economy, and on the sustainable use of natural resources.

The work supported the Parliamentary Committee on Energy and Climate Issues in its preparation of a low-carbon roadmap for Finland. The goal of the platform was to initiate a broad-ranging and open debate involving the various actors, scientists and political decision-makers involved. This was largely achieved, but the greatest challenge is a communicative issue: how should the results be communicated and how should the transparency of the computational modelling methods, databases and source data used be increased?

Current position needs to be established before a direction is set

Contrary to the way it is often described, Finland’s energy system is highly advanced in many respects. After Sweden and Latvia, Finland has the EU’s third highest share of renewables from final energy consumption. Consumer electricity prices are among the lowest in the EU; at around half of German and Danish prices, for example. Efficiency of energy production in Finland is world class, thanks to combined heat and power production.

There is room for improvement, of course, since Finland imports more than 60% of its energy, but in this respect too, Finland outperforms the EU average.

Data quality is critical to determining our starting point.  Experts, decision-makers and the media need to know when they can trust the data they are given. We will easily stray off our new course if errors pile up.

How to plot the best route taking us through several decades?

The energy markets are in transition and the choices made over the next few years will determine our future direction for years to come. A series of measures has been set out in the Government Programme, such as phasing out the use of coal in energy production, halving oil imports for domestic use, and increasing the share of renewable energy to more than half from energy consumption by 2030. These measures are being taken in order to reduce Finland’s greenhouse gas emissions and improve its energy self-sufficiency, while also expediting the development of the Finnish cleantech sector.

No part of our society is unaffected by energy use; new technology will play a key role in energy development. We need to bring our greenhouse gas emissions close to zero in energy production and radically scale them down in industry, households, the service sector, agriculture and transport by 2050. We need to find the right measures and instruments for achieving this objective on a managed and sustainable basis. This will require a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the effects of measures, collaboration across disciplines and sector-boundaries and, ultimately, efforts and sustainable choices from every one of us, Finland’s consumers.

A long journey lies ahead and the road may well be bumpy, but our goal is within reach.

Tiina Koljonen

Research Team Leader

Local energy systems have a host of advantages

By the end of 2020, all new buildings must be almost zero-energy. This means buildings that consume very little energy. In addition, the energy required should be renewable as far as possible. Where this renewable energy would best and most sensibly produced is up for grabs. If the energy is produced locally to fulfil, say, the needs of entire neighbourhoods, huge benefits can be reaped without placing unreasonable demands on single buildings.

A range of zero energy solutions have been proposed and analysed by the international scientific literature, but few have been implemented. In my opinion challenges in implementation, such as high costs or complex system solutions, may be the reason for this. The more systems there are, the more demanding their use and maintenance is. Such barriers are lowered if zero-energy areas replace zero-energy buildings.

Local renewable energy sources can be chosen in order to improve an area’s energy self-sufficiency and emission reduction. In densely built areas, it makes sense to design buildings that serve as an effective part of the local energy system. For example, solar energy systems can be placed optimally with respect to the entire area, to avoid shade due to differences in altitude, or to trees or other buildings. In Germany, solar thermal collectors intended for residential heating are installed e.g. as roadside sound barriers and roofs for parking facilities.

Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Canada implemented local, solar thermal systems combined with district heating and seasonal storage years ago. Pilots for the seasonal thermal energy storage (STES) of solar energy on a local basis are few and far between in Finland, despite demonstrations by international studies that the utilisation level of solar energy can exceed 50% of the annual local heat requirement in similar climate zones. STES can also be enhanced through the more effective use of a variety of waste heat solutions, such as excess heat from data centres.

Greater use could be made of local renewable energy, waste heat and heat storage if district heating networks were opened out to a range of heat producers. This has been done in Stockholm. New players and competition thereby enter the heat production market. At the same time, energy flows can be recycled and local energy efficiency improves.

A recently completed study by VTT presents options for heat and power generation based on local energy systems. Energy needs and ‑production on Vartiosaari in Helsinki were explored as a case area. The project studied the impact of introducing solar thermal energy on local self-sufficiency and emissions from heating energy, if excess solar heat in the summer is stored using BTES (borehole thermal energy storage) or tank-based storage for use in the winter. Around 60% self-sufficiency in heat production would have been achieved in the cases studied. In addition, carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by around 50%, and sulphur dioxide and particulate emissions by up to 70%.

Satu Paiho

Senior Scientist

Read the publication “Paikallista energiaa asuinalueella – Esimerkkinä Helsingin Vartiosaari” online.

Climate impacts of transport

The world’s attention is now turned towards France and Paris. The media have been preoccupied by the terrorist atrocities. With luck, good news too will soon come out of Paris. I am referring to the UN climate change conference to be held at the end of November and early December.  Our planet needs common, binding targets for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Transport emissions of greenhouse gases can be reduced by increasing the efficiency of the entire energy system, improving the energy efficiency of vehicles and switching to renewable energy. Until now, boosting the energy efficiency of vehicles, particularly cars, has been the key factor in curbing transport emissions.

For this presentation, I browsed for various statistics on traffic. IEA figures show that traffic accounts for 28% of the end consumption of energy on a global scale. i.e. the transport sector is a major energy user and producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, due to Finland’s energy-intensive industrial sector, traffic accounts for a lower proportion of emissions here. According to the IEA, oil accounts for 93% of energy used in transport, with alternative energy sources (including biofuels, natural gas and electricity) still accounting for only 7%. In Europe, biofuels accounted for only 4.9% of road transport fuels in 2014.

Electric cars are being much discussed. According to the IEA, there were 665,000 electric vehicles in the world by the end of 2014. This is a high figure in itself, but accounts for only 0.08% of the world car fleet in absolute terms. The registration statistics of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, the ACEA, make for grim reading. Of new vehicle registrations in Europe, alternative vehicles accounted for only 4% in January–September 2015 and electric vehicles for only 0.8%. In Europe, only Norway (12.5%) and the Netherlands (3.9%) top 3% for the proportion of electric cars bought.

So where are the bright spots? In fact, they are closer to home than people think. Namely, in Finland. In 2014, biofuels in Finland accounted for 12.3% of all energy produced and the calculated share – taking account of so-called double counting – was as high as 23.5%. Under its distribution obligation, Finland aimed for a 20% share for biofuels by 2020 (calculated share), which means that this objective was achieved ahead of time and with flying colours. Finland’s number of electric cars is nothing to boast about.  But bright spots can be seen here as well. Finland is home to a new electric bus manufacturer, Linkker, a VTT spin-off. Helsinki Region Transport (HSL) has signalled its faith in progress by ordering the first 12 vehicles, the first of which is expected to hit the roads any day. HSL and VTT are engaged in close cooperation in other respects. Aims include all conventional buses ordered by HSL being run 100% on biofuels by 2020. In addition, HSL has highly ambitious plans for electric buses.

And this gives us our link to climate issues. Where public transport is available, passengers should be incentivised to leave their cars at home. This would improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions. It would also release urban space – currently used for parking – for other, more rational uses. And how can we get the share of public transport to rise? By providing easy-to-use passenger services and journey chains, and increasing the attractiveness of buses by promoting greener vehicles. All in line with HSL’s strategy and based on excellent cooperation between HSL and VTT!

Nils-Olof Nylund

Research Professor and Programme Manager of the TransSmart spearhead programme

VTT supporting energy planning in Namibia

The moment you land on Hosea Kutako International Airport next to the capital of Namibia, Windhoek, you quickly realise you’re in a special place. Surrounded by a savannah landscape, rolling hills and an occasional wild animal you can’t help but feel a sense of adventure. This feeling grows stronger when you get an opportunity to explore the vast country more; Places such as Etosha National Park, the sand dunes in the Namib Naukluft National Park or simply the rough but beautiful wilderness everywhere in the country will impress even a more experienced traveller. But behind these amazing landscapes, serious challenges arise and many of them relate to climate change.


According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) southern Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions to the impacts of climate change. Climate change vulnerability is especially high concerning extreme events such as increased drought causing water stress, land degradation, desertification and loss of biodiversity. As a major part of the population is reliant on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, livestock management and fishing, these events can endanger the food security and the overall development of the region.

At the same time, among other development challenges, many of the countries in the region are facing big decisions concerning the development of their energy sector.  For example, the Namibian energy sector has seen very little investment on electricity production capacity, making the country very reliant on energy imports. As other countries in the region are also experiencing difficulties in securing their electricity supply due to aging energy infrastructure and growing consumption, major investments would be needed.

Namibia is situated on shores of the Atlantic Ocean north from neighbouring South Africa. It is a vast, dry country with a population of only 2.3 million.

Namibia is truly at a crossroad concerning the development of its energy sector, and the decisions made now will have a major impact for several decades. Fortunately, Namibia possesses a significant potential for utilising renewable energy sources, especially solar.

Sunset in Swakopmund, Namibia

Informed decisions about future sustainable energy system

During recent years, VTT has been involved in energy policy development in Namibia by supporting the work of Ministry of Mines and Energy of Namibia. Currently, VTT works on a project related to energy efficiency and renewable energy options for the Namibian fishing industry.

Project manager Miika Rämä with Mr. Peya Hitula, the General Manager of fishing company Tunacor.

Interest on energy issues has been high, not least because of rising price of electricity: a 65 % increase on average during past 5 years for commercial and large power user consumers. In general, concerns on the electricity supply are currently a hot topic of public discussion.

The need for the capacity building on energy issues in the region is high. For example, the changes in electricity system operation and management due to increasing solar based electricity production would benefit from smart grid and electricity storage solutions. Currently, the country is moving towards a highly distributed electricity system with a significant number of relatively small scale power plants in development. Namibia’s fist photovoltaic power plant of 4.5 MW in capacity was inaugurated in 13th May 2015.

The Namibians also face the problem of evaluating which technology providers actually can guarantee reliable systems, and do not just try to sell their product for buyers with limited knowledge and experience on the technologies and their profitability. Thus capacity building by a neutral party such as VTT has been highly appreciated by the stakeholders met in the projects.

There is a lot of room for very important work in the region, and the expertise of VTT’s energy systems specialists can serve the Namibians for making better decisions for future sustainable energy system. This work can also contribute in tackling the challenge of climate change adaptation. Not perhaps by the scale of activities, but by setting an example that with given resources and careful planning a 100 % renewable electricity system is a realistic target.

Current project team (from the left): Kati Koponen and Miika Rämä from VTT, Nils Hauffe from NWV Market Discovery, Inc.

Kati Koponen, Research Scientist

Miika Rämä, Research Scientist


See also:

Research report: Development of Namibian energy

The Energy and Environment Partnership (EEP)

International Renewable Energy Symposium (IRES) – NAMIBIA

Embassy of Finland in Windhoek