Geographies in Depth

Finland is a world leader in clean energy. Here’s what’s driving its success

A maintenance truck is seen at UPM-Kymmeneis biofuel plant in Lappeenranta, Finland March 9, 2016. Picture taken March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jussi Rosendahl - RC189C6F7C50

Finland meets 29% of its energy needs from advanced biofuels. Image: REUTERS/Jussi Rosendahl

Sean Fleming
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Finland uses a lot less fossil fuel than most countries. But it still has a lot to do to hit its ambitious green energy targets.

The country’s commitment to biofuels is one of the chief reasons it’s ahead of many others. Finland gets 29% of all its energy needs from advanced biofuels. It also has extensive nuclear and hydro networks.

But some of its bold targets for continued fuel-use improvement call for sustained government intervention. One example being the goal of powering 30% of all transport with green energy by 2030. It also hopes to reduce personal car ownership.

These are some of the findings from the International Energy Agency (IEA), a body set up in the wake of the oil crisis of the 1970s. It has 30 member countries and seven associates, and promotes energy security, economic development and environmental protection. Alternative energy production is one of the IEA’s key focus areas.

Powering vehicles with biofuel has been common practice in different parts of the world for years. Frequently though, such undertakings have been managed at the local or even micro-local level. From individuals having diesel vehicles converted to run on biofuel and then producing their own supply for personal consumption, through to city-wide initiatives involving public transport.

Developing alternatives is one part of the equation. Getting industry and the public to adopt them is another. Tax policy can be used by governments to make the switch to greener fuels more financially appealing. But setting up adequate supply networks may call for public investment in infrastructure, or changes to planning consent to allow construction work to take place.

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Extensive supply chains and distribution networks are needed to ensure biofuel is widely available and affordable. While traditional petrol and diesel supply chains are well established, from extraction through to refinery and on to retail, no equivalent network is in place for biofuel. Establishing one may make the cost of biofuel at the pump unappealing for regular consumers, as the investment cost gets passed on.

Other areas where Finland will have to work hard include phasing out the use of coal and peat in the combined generation of heat and power (CHP), according to the IEA. The Finnish government’s participation in the Powering Past Coal initiative, which aims to encourage a shift to biomass-based CHP, is intended to address this. Part of this move will include the development of heat storage and smart meters, and more energy-efficient building design.

Currently, the US is the world’s leading producer of biofuel. It outranks the rest of the world’s biofuel production by so much that it out-produces the combined biofuel output of the other nine countries in the top 10.

Countries that produced the most biofuel in 2017

The future of biofuels

Many vehicle manufacturers, such as Honda, are investing in new biofuel research and development. The Japanese industrial giant says it has found a way to produce ethanol from the inedible leaves and stalks of plants such as rice straw. However, a Finnish chemistry professor is also working on a top secret route to creating biofuel.

Jyri-Pekka Mikkola teaches at Åbo Akademi University in Finland and Umeå University in Sweden. He’s working on a biomass-based fuel produced by mixing water and ethanol with a catalyst, that he claims has all the properties of petrol.

"If we consider how ethanol is made, it's simply sugar, and that is the most common form of biomass these days. You can use food waste, agricultural waste, old newspapers – almost anything which contains sugars that can be fermented into ethanol, and that's how we get what's needed," Mikkola told Finnish news website Yle Uutiset.

Mikkola also told Yle Uutiset that following a series of break-ins at the research facilities where his new fuel is being developed, security there has been tightened up. Mobile phones are not allowed in meetings, and until a patent has been secured for the process, the academic is staying tight-lipped on the details of how it works.

While recycling cooking oil from local takeaway stores and restaurants might be sufficient to meet the needs of the home-based biofuel evangelist, it won’t keep a country running.

Growing crops for biofuel production has raised concerns over the potential impact on biodiversity and food security. It risks pushing up consumer food prices, as it may increase competition for land and other agricultural resources.

The likely answer in the medium-term is a combination of new research-led initiatives, recycled oil, and biomass. But the coordination of these and their necessary distribution networks will require careful planning and oversight.

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthEnergy TransitionNature and Biodiversity
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