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District energy is a platform and an enabler for future energy solutions

District heating is Finland’s most popular heating solution. Around 65% of new buildings select district heating every year. Besides supplying nearly half of Finnish homes and commercial buildings with heating, district heating companies also supply and offer a competitive and reliable energy infrastructure to industry. Yet, district heating is experiencing a revolution. New solutions are being developed for carbon-free energy production, as well as new services for the client. Smart energy technologies with digital solutions and data handling are emerging in production, distribution, monitoring and client services of district energy.

District heat as an enabler for climate change mitigation and circular economy

Sources of energy for district heating are not the same as years ago. Climate change mitigation, emerging technologies, digitalization and the increasing awareness of customers are challenging the industry to develop. Today, already about 70% of Finland’s municipalities produce district heating mainly with renewable energy sources or waste heat. The transformation rate towards carbon neutral production has been so high that statistics of energy production sources tend to be outdated already when published. Carbon emissions from district heat production have fallen by nearly 40 % in the past decade and they are predicted to be halved during the next decade. With the significant investments the district heating companies make each year to increase carbon neutral heat production, entire cities and urban areas can make a positive energy transformation.

In many cases, the district heating company either produces heat also for nearby industry, or, heat recovered from nearby industrial processes is used for district heating. Either way, the district heating company enables energy efficiency and circular economy operations of other industrial sectors. The increasing use of industrial size heat pumps enables the use of low temperature industrial waste waters as a heat source for district heating, increasing simultaneously the overall energy efficiency. The district heating company offers carbon neutral energy as a service and the industrial operator can focus on circular economy activities of its own.

Cooperation with research and innovation partners is highly valuable

Regardless of the investments and work done so far, the district heating companies are continuously challenged by the society, tightening up of energy policy, competition in the space heating market and customer awareness towards new technological innovations. The district heating companies are often small and medium sized municipally owned companies with limited resources for technological research. For new investments, they are generally looking for commercially available technologies. Cooperation with research and innovation partners is necessary both for the district energy companies to be aware of new solution and for the researchers to understand the daily issues of actual operators. District heating is always produced locally, thus the circumstances vary in each town.

High expectations for geothermal heat in district heating

A highly interesting theme right now, in Finland, is geothermal heat in district heating. Our geological circumstances are less favourable compared to other areas where geothermal heat has been used for district heating for a long time. We used to think that geothermal heat was not an option here. However, first experiments from drilling deeper wells (c. 2 kilometers and even 6 kilometers) in recent years and the development of industrial size heat pumps rise high expectations for utilizing deep ground heat sources for district heat also in Finland.

District heating companies are anxious to hear news about the commercializing of geothermal heat deep from the Earth´s crust. On the other hand, there is some waiting in the air as the first drillings tend to bring some challenges on the way. And, the volumes of heat required for district heating are vast in this climate, thus, new solutions will cover only part of the heat demand at first. The district heating companies also struggle with the media and politicians expecting immediate changes not seeming to understand the scale of matters and the stage of development of new technologies.

The Finnish district heating concept is something to be proud of

Technological solutions for district heating developed in Finland are highly valued around the world. Our expertise has been exported abroad for decades. On global scale also, district energy is a solution to fighting climate change. New solutions innovated in Finland can be scaled to megacities with high impact to climate change mitigation. And what we tend to forget while concentrating on new innovations, is that the current Finnish district heating concept itself is the core of the system and admired elsewhere as such. With the same concept, the energy source can be changed, and the energy services developed, to meet environmental and client requirements varying with time and local circumstances.

Role of The Finnish District Heating and Cooling Association, FinDHC ry, in Smart Otaniemi

The Finnish District Heating and Cooling Association, FinDHC ry and VTT arranged three practical workshops together in 2019. The workshops gathered researchers and specialists from energy companies to work together on finding future solutions for production and distribution of district heat. A special focus was on geothermal heat last year.

As a networking partner, FinDHC can support Smart Otaniemi in recognizing and bringing together relevant companies for future workshops or other activities and sharing research results with member companies. Member companies of FinDHC may choose to participate in individual projects or pilots within Smart Otaniemi. Besides new technologies in energy sources, the district heating companies are interested in developing their business models, understanding the possibilities of AI in energy etc.

Katja Kurki-Suonio
Executive Director
The Finnish District Heating and Cooling Association, FinDHC ry

Blogi on julkaistu VTT Smart Otaniemi sivuilla.