Sunday, 18 March 2012

High Energy

Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, there was a wave of anti-nuclear sentiments in Finland. The old "Nuclear Power – No Thanks" stickers came out again, and everyone agreed that nuclear energy was a bad thing.

I stood as an observer, not knowing much about Finnish energy generation or consumption (actually, I don't know much at all about energy). But a couple of thoughts came to my mind....

The first thought was: if not nuclear energy, what then?

Finland has very little fossil fuel, so has to rely on imports, most notably from that tricky neighbour Russia. It does have lots of water, but the terrain is relatively flat, so the scope for hydro-power is not enormous. Finland also has a lot of wood and some peat, but those is fairly inefficient sources of energy and produce greenhouse gases. Solar energy is of course an option, but not so much during the dark winters when presumably energy consumption is at its highest.

Finland is already doing quite well with the use of renewable energy, with about 25% of energy production classifiable as such (compared to 10% on average in the EU). But despite these efforts, the demand for energy is such that Finland has ended up relying on nuclear for close to 30% of its electricity generation.

And that leads to the second thought I had: ever since I started travelling to Finland, I noticed that Finns seem to be voracious consumers of energy.

Finnish houses always seem to be heated to close to 25C (77F) day and night, substantially warmer than houses in other countries I have lived in (where night temperatures are often way below 20C/68F). Presumably Finns would think it weird to turn down the thermostat and wear a few more clothes or use a thicker duvet in bed.

Apartments are heated to the same temperature, regardless of whether anyone is there or not (the heating is handled by the apartment block). There is under-floor heating in every bathroom (and very nice it is too), but that too seems to be on permanently. Yet despite all that heating, Finns (especially women it has to be said) always seem to complain about being cold when inside. How did their ancestors survive the arctic climate?

Finns also seem to drive everywhere: Finland is the only country, apart from the US, in which I have been driven a few yards from one shop to the other – and that wasn't even in the depth of winter!

Most amazing of all to me is the fact that some pavements (sidewalks) in Helsinki are heated to melt the snow! Great idea of course, but surely it must be possible to put that energy to some better use!

But all this is no more than anecdotal evidence. So I decided to do a bit of research about Finnish energy consumption.

And sure enough, it does seem like Finns love using energy. Finland has one of the biggest consumption of energy per capita in the world (13th place in 2003), not far behind the US.

Energy Consumption of Various Countries (2003)

"Ah, but it's because of the climate", I hear you say. Indeed, it may be in part, but how come Finland's energy consumption is some 20% above that of Sweden and Norway (which one would assume have similar energy requirements)?

Furthermore, Finnish consumption is actually increasing rapidly. Between 1990 to 2006, Finnish energy consumption increased 44 percent in electricity and 30 percent in the total energy use. Along with that comes of course substantial carbon dioxide emissions: Finland's emission per capita is nearly twice that of Sweden.

The stark reality is that Finns are going to have to do something about their love affair with energy if they want to reduce their dependence on nuclear power.

Maybe Finns could start by wearing thick jumpers when at home.


  1. Interesting...never knew this. Hubby insists that the best bedroom temperature is 18'C. In winter living room temp in our house is around 20-21'C, but in spring/summer it gets warmer (can't open the window fully due to sääski).

    We have another bedroom we don't use and when we're not using it, we turn down the heater so that the min temp there would be around 15'C.

  2. Wood isn't as bad as peat (which regenerates so very slowly and the gathering of which ruins local water systems), as it's asymptotically carbon neutral (apart from the carbon dioxide produced during cutting and transporting it) because a growing forest rebinds the carbon.

    Our apartment complex dropped the inside temperature from 24C to 22C a couple of years ago and I think this is a more general trend. In Helsinki, the whole temperature thing isn't that big of a deal since the city is essentially being heated by the spare heat after the electricity production. It think it technically lowers the efficiency of electricity production somewhat, but it's the demand of electricity that drives the production.

    The funny thing about heated sidewalks is that it might actually use less energy to heat them than to plow the snow and transport it away.

    Yeah, the nuclear energy thing is stupid. Even Germany decided to drop it after Fukushima, opting instead to add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Like global warming isn't a worse problem. Furthermore, Fukushima was built in the 60s using 1950s' American designs. I'm pretty sure significant progress in safety has been made since then.

  3. I was a bit shocked to hear that Finns are such world leaders in energy consumption! They do love their warmth, though, don't they? The trend for everyone to have their own sauna at home must be another factor that drives up electricity usage.

    I'm not sure I agree about the use of cars - we live in Helsinki and own a car, but quite honestly we (and many of our neighbours) frequently use public transport in preference, as the tram and bus service is terrific and saves us parking-related headaches!

    As for the nuclear energy debate, I think that on balance I am still in favour of using nuclear power. Fukushima was a disaster, but it really was a freak accident (honestly, how likely is it that a nuclear power plant anywhere else in the world would be hit by the combination of a calamatous earthquake followed by a massive tsunami?) I think we have to see things with a bit of perspective, and not forget the massive benefits of nuclear power, especially for countries like Finland that are not fossil-fuel or sunlight-energy rich (and also given that fossil fuels are a finite resource...)

    1. It doesn't need to be the combination of an earthquake followed by a tsunami. Fukushima could have survived that too. The only thing it needs to cause that kind of accident is that the cooling system stops working for a short period of time. In Fukushimas case the tsunami hit the plants energy supply, both the normal one and the backup energy. Without energy the cooling system didn't work anymore and well, the result was the Fukushima disaster. If they would have been able to restart the cooling system fast enough nothing would have happened. Sure, the earthquake/tsunami were the activators of the disaster, but the reason for it was the non-working cooling system.
      And sadly there are quite a few other things that can cause the cooling system to stop working. They try to protect it against many exterior influences, but there are always some left. For an easy example: terrorists. Not all nuclear plants are protected against the damage a small plane crashing down would cause and AFAIK none is protected against the big passenger planes of the kind used at 9/11.
      Or a bit more exotic: In France they recently found a WWI bomb below an old nuclear plant while dismantling it. I'm pretty sure that nobody ever thought to secure their nuclear plant against a bomb accidentally moulded into the foundation of their plant.

      Also to be aware of: Nuclear plants don't work on nothing. They need uranium. And like fossil fuels uranium is not endless. With the request for it being so high nowadays and getting higher the more developing nations noticing it as an easy way out of their energy problems the supply for it is getting lower and lower unless somebody figures out new economical technologies to get to it or they find a yet unknown big resource. While I wouldn't take serious the number of Greenpeace (20 years until its over) I also would not believe the number of those that want to build more nuclear plants (200 years until its over). I would put my money on independent geologists and the IAEO who estimate it to still last around 60 years.

      So sooner or later Finland will have to think about real alternatives. It's up to the current population if they want to play on borrowed time and leave the problem for their grandchildren or if they do something now. The sooner they start the less dirt and the less problem they leave for the generations afterwards.

  4. A friend of mine lives in the northeast USA and works in the southern USA. He once observed, as we were baking ourselves right next to his roaring wood stove, that we northerners just can't get enough heat. In fact, we find it kind of pleasurable to exist in an environment where the temperature might even border on too warm. It's a luxury. Down south, they carry out the same practice in front of their air conditioners. To them, it's a luxury to feel a bit of a chill.

    It seems sort of obvious, but I think what's interesting about it hinges on what's uncomfortable versus what's pleasurable. In that moment, in front of the wood stove, I wouldn't be surprised if the temperature was 28 or 29C, and we were simply basking in it, sweaters and all. We were hot and we loved it.

    I think there's something to that theory, and, given what we know of Finns and saunas, I think it's true of them, too. It doesn't explain why Norway and Sweden are more frugal with their energy, but it might explain why Finns are a bit wasteful with theirs. That said, I think you're right that it would be best if we all reigned it in and sacrificed a little heat in an effort to conserve energy. This was a very interesting post, and I thank you for citing all that information.

  5. Interesting post, however I'd like to point out that the winter of 2003 had rather heavy snow in Finland.

    Comparatively in 2004 we had a really mild winter, and interestingly enough Norway leaped ahead of us in energy consumption:

    That said, Norway generally benefits from the warming effect of the Atlantic during winter, where as we suffer more from the Siberian cold air masses. And these factors vary every year. One chart from 2003 doesn't really tell it all. :)

  6. True, if you look at the temperatures in the Nordic Countries you'll see that in Finland it's always a bit colder then in its western neighbours.
    Coming to the question of nuclear energy. Eventhough the risk seems to be quite low since what happened in Fukushima seems to be quite unlikely to happen anywhere else, nuclear energy, no matter how good the technology is, can never be fully controlled. No matter under which unlikely circumstances, once radioactivity is released you don't get rid of it for centuries. And not to mention the huge amount of nuclear waste that is produces every year through nuclear powerplants. There is still no solution to what to do with it.
    If all the money that was spend on this technology would have been invested in developing renewable energy instead we wouldn't have to worry about this problem now.
    Luckily more and more conties and companies focus on that issue now.
    About the energy problem Finland has. Norway produces so much energy from renewable sources (hydroelectric powerplants) that it can't even use it all. Even Germany was considering buying that energy. Finland even has a boarder to Norway. It would be save and clean energy and Finns didn't have to rely on Russia.

    1. The problem with relying on Norway or Sweden for Finnish energy needs is that it doesn't work. There are plans to tie the Nordic grid more tightly to the Central European one and we all know that they'll buy every megawatt they can. Besides, Norway and Sweden may also want to use that energy to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. You can't rely on that.

  7. I felt the same after Fukushima. There was this huge anti-nuclear sentiment that came up over night, and it bothered me a bit. I'm no fan of nuclear energy and would happily support any clean energy, but I think the term "clean energy" is an oxymoron of sorts. There are always going to be problems with any source of energy. Ethanol from corn comes with it's ethical dilemmas plus the possibility of increased eutrophication, hydroelectricity changes/devastates local ecosystems, wind farms are eye sores (so they say, I think they are beautiful), solar energy needs high surface areas etc. Was a little tired of hippies complaining about nuclear energy and then turning to their iPads and MacBooks and (insert other 21st century appliances) to write on vegan message boards.

    Don't get me wrong, Fukushima was a tragic event and it is probably not a matter of if it will happen again, it is a matter of when. But I couldn't help but see parallels between the vilification of nuclear technology after one event and the vilification certain religions get after some more extreme members use violence in the name of that religion.

    1. Fusion would be clean, but unless we're talking about the Sun, it's still 15-20 years away, quite possibly perpetually.

      Fission could still be the ticket. With breeder reactors and rising energy prices, we may end up digging up nuclear waste for reuse. The funny and sad thing about nuclear energy is that the pollution from fossil fuels may cause more deaths than nuclear energy - maybe even per megawatt.

      Biofuel sounds nice in theory, but its production and use might even increase carbon emissions at the moment. Hydroelectricity, too, may be catastrophic in terms of climate change. The vegetation rotting underwater in the reservoir releases methane in the atmosphere.

  8. In February 2011 I got a letter from Helsingin Energia which showed the energy consumption of my apartment for the previous 5 years and 3 months. Given that at that point I had lived at the place only 2,5 years I also learned about the energy consumption of the previous owner. And I still haven't figured out what he could have done to make the consumption numbers so high. There is still the same antique fridge and stove (both energy level C) that I plan to replace pretty much since I moved in but never got to it. And as I had seen the apartment in its previous furnishing I know that there had been no washing machine (like there is now) and only a small TV and definitely no high-power gaming PC (like now). But still my energy consumption is only about 62% of his.

    At work I currently try to get my Finnish work colleagues a bit more conscious to little things like the light always burning everywhere, toilets, meeting rooms, kitchen, also during the night. Last summer each Monday morning I switched off all the lights everywhere and raised the slides a bit more so that the rooms get lighter without the light disturbing the monitors. By the end of the summer my success rate was already a bit better. Let's see if this summer I'm back to the beginning.

  9. These are big policy questions of course and you really need experts to give you answers, but IIRC the reason why Finnish electricity consumption is so high per capita is because of the pulp and paper industries that are hugely power intensive - its not really down to private consuming at all. Take industrial usages out of the equation and I believe household consumption is is very average for Europeans. Yes you needs the lights on a lot in winter, but then you don't need them at all in summer etc. Finnish houses and apartments are all pretty small compared particularly to say N. America and Australia, so are energy efficient just for that reason along with being well insulated. I do agree though people keep their houses unpleasantly hot here! It took some getting used to having grown up in 250 year old, slightly damp and dilapidated English house in a frosty party of the country. District heating in the areas that have it (inner Helsinki for example) is said to be very efficient.

    And it only that one street that is heated isn't it? I thought Helsinki City's argument there was that heating it was cheaper than the medical costs incurred from people falling on the same length of busy street.

    Car usage is going up but from the last article I remember reading on it, it is still below the EU average. Two car families in Finland are not the norm that they are in the UK as far as I have seen, and public transport is generally a good alternative in the greater Helsinki area. Bike path provision and design is something that I can rant about for hours, but overall Greater Helsinki is a pretty decent place in which to ride for transport as well.

    1. The paper and pulp industry. I'm not sure how much truth there is behind that (even so my work buddies also use it each time we start discussing that topic). Sure, Finland has some of the bigger companies in that branch but a major part of their production is spread all over the world and thus is their use of energy. If you check the direct output of paper and pulp not by company but by country then the numbers show that Finland has the same the same production amount (11,7 mio tons in 2010) as Sweden (11,4 mio tons in 2010) and only half the output of Germany (23,1 mio tons in 2010).

      It would be interesting to see statistics on which parts of Finland cause the high consumption or if it is evenly spread. Helsinki area has quite a few nice innovations to save energy (e.g. that server-farm below Uspenski cathedral whose heat is used for energy production), but also quite a few areas were they waste a lot. In the center of Helsinki one doesn't need to be scared of dark places because their simply are none. They always say that it is so dark in Finland in Winter, but it is just the wrong kind of light (artificial). It took me quite some time to get used to all that light moving from an alpine valley. In the last few years the flashlight was just extra weight I'm carrying around in my handbag.

    2. It's true about how much lighting there is everywhere in Finland. It's really quite hard to see the stars anywhere in the Helsinki Metropolitan area and you really have to get away from the city and highways to get a proper view.

    3. @Cecil: "Finland has the same the same production amount (11,7 mio tons in 2010) as Sweden (11,4 mio tons in 2010) and only half the output of Germany (23,1 mio tons in 2010)."

      We need to look at these numbers *per person*. Sweden's population is almost double that of Finland. Germany's population 16 times bigger than Finland's. So that means that Finland has twice the paper and pulp production of Sweden, and 8 times of Germany, per person!

  10. I'd also add that the stainless steel industry is quite a big consumer of energy, Tornio Works uses up roughly 3,3 terawatt hours of energy per year


  12. Although uranium isn't an infinite source of power, there still is a reason to prefer nuclear power in Finland. Finland has one of the biggest amount of radon in our ground, which is caused by the large amount of uranium in the Finnish bedrock. We have the fuel needed to power the nuclear plants, it might not be as easily used as in other countries, but still the (soon-to-be) cheapest energy source in Finland. The bedrock in Finland is also very suitable for storing the radioactive waste. It's harder than anywhere else, and also keeps the gamma-radiation in. Finland also has very stable climate, and talented engineers running these plants, so, apparently the nuclear power is the best and most reliable source of power in Finland. Like it or hate it...