Skip to main content
Smart Cities Marketplace
Scalable cities

Moving to Cleaner Energy in Helsinki with mySMARTLife


Story type
Publication Date


Electric robot bus on its Kalasatama pilot route in summer 2019 (Credits: Marja Vuorinen)

Electric robot bus on its Kalasatama pilot route in the summer of 2019. Photo credits: Marja Vuorinen 

In the struggle against climate change, Finland has taken an uncompromising stance to eliminate coal from its energy generation portfolio by 2030, if not before. One of the major challenges in achieving this goal is that at least 25% of Finland’s population is reliant on coal-fired heating during the long, harsh winters. Now, the historically important gas is expected to become a more important source of energy after a dormant period due to a reduction of taxation on gas and an increase in coal. One new nuclear plant is being built and one is planned, which will also facilitate the transition to fossil fuel-free power. These are not the only sources of power utilized in Finland: Nearly half the kilowatts generated come from wood and oil. There is also a small but growing contribution from renewable hydro, wind and solar power while Finland’s extensive peat bogs represent the most unusual source. With all these alternatives, scaling down and gradually eliminating coal should not be too difficult.

Reducing the Demand for Power

While changing the source of supply to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and move to renewables and nuclear power is one way to address carbon emissions and their effect on the environment, increasing efficiency on the demand-side that reduces the amount of energy needed is another. This is where the mySMARTLife project comes into play.

MySMARTLife is one of the projects funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 initiative. Like other Horizon 2020 projects, it consists of a set of goals and objectives to be achieved by three “Lighthouse Cities”, which are Helsinki, Nantes and Hamburg. Although they share common objectives, they each adopt their own strategies and technologies, which fit their city and climate best. Their findings and successes can then be shared with “Follower Cities” which can choose one or more solutions that fit their own needs best.

We spoke to Marja Vuorinen, former Lead for Lighthouse City Helsinki, about the objectives of the overall project and what actions Helsinki is taking.

What mySMARTLife Plans to Achieve

All projects approved for Horizon 2020 are assessed on their capability to improve citizens’ lives and increase the sustainability of the city through environmental improvements that align the city with the EU’s plans to combat climate change and make life more comfortable for all who dwell in the city. A very important factor in reaching these goals is the engagement and encouragement of citizens in the day-to-day running of the city which requires good and pervasive communications. To be “smart” citizens, they need to be informed, so all relevant city data should be accessible via a shared and open data platform. The projects must all bring innovations to the table that are straightforward to implement, and that can be adopted by Follower Cities and other cities that want to join the network.

The mySMARTLife objectives fit the bill by:

  • Tackling climate change on the supply side by phasing out energy derived from coal and replacing it with energy from renewables,
  • Reducing the demand for energy by improving energy efficiency and reducing consumption and waste via interventions such as retrofitting the built environment,
  • Informing and consulting citizens so that they become actively involved in making Helsinki more sustainable, inclusive and a better place to live,
  • Providing the data platform essential for the free flow and sharing of knowledge for decision support and citizen engagement,
  • Designing and building a transformation strategy in collaboration with active citizens that will work for Helsinki and can be adopted by other cities,
  • Talk is nothing without action; delivering specific improvements that enhance life in Helsinki.

The experiences and innovations will be shared with three Follower Cities of mySMARTLife, (Bydgoszcz, Palencia and Rijeka) as well as other Lighthouse Cities and other European cities that want to join the mySMARTLife Cities Network.

Helsinki’s mySMARTLife Actions

The location for the Helsinki demonstrations is based in Old Town Bay (Vanhankaupunginlahti). It has further been broken down into four zones, where most of the 47 scheduled actions will take place:

  • Zone 1 is dedicated to retrofitting older residential buildings,
  • Zone 2 focuses on new residential “smart” homes and renewable energy,
  • Zone 3 contains a commercial office building incorporating renewable energy (solar),
  • Zone 4 is the entire city area where energy and mobility solutions are to be introduced.

All the activities will be underpinned by the urban data platform, which currently incorporates “Helsinki 3D”, the 3D city model of Helsinki, as well as the IoT platform. The image below is a solar energy view of the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. One other tool is webpages presenting the level of heat emitting from buildings across the city, which assists in deciding where retrofitting is needed.

Challenges in Attaining the mySMARTLife Goals

The phasing out of coal (and peat, which also emits CO2) is probably the biggest challenge but Helsinki has committed itself to replacing the production of another of its remaining CHP production units (Hanasaari) using coal by 2024. While this can be achieved through introducing new clean power generation, which Helen, Helsinki’s energy supplier, will do by building a new plant that will rely on heat pumps rather than coal, it makes sense to reduce the demand by improving energy efficiency in the homes.

Karoliina Auvinen, an energy expert from Aalto University, recommends that, instead of keeping water heated in the district heating system at 80-950C as it is currently done, a temperature of 650C should be maintained. If older buildings are retrofitted to retain heat better, this temperature will be adequate, even during Finland’s harsh winters. When hotter water is required, it can be heated directly with electricity. However, she thinks that this change must be made gradually until all the residences in the district are completely refurbished and outfitted with the right technologies.

This is completely possible but requires a great deal of work, collaboration and integration to achieve the desired results, which are shown below in a diagram from Ms Auvinen’s presentation, “The Role of Buildings in the Clean Energy System” (2018-02-14).

Three sub-projects deal with energy efficiency in Helsinki housing:

  • Retrofitting older blocks of buildings to make them energy-efficient in Merihaka and Vilhonvuori. One building of 167 apartments has been fitted with smart thermostats in every room to control and optimize the heating to avoid overheating. This is the Zone 1 project.
  • Optimizing newer, high-performance buildings in Kalasatama. This area is Zone 2 and contains 67 buildings of about 4,500 flats. They are to be fitted with smart meters. The area is being developed in co-creation with the residents.
  • In addition, the Viikki Environment House, an office building which has its roof and south side  façade covered with solar panels, as well as in-house electricity storage. The renewables provide 20% of the electricity demand for the building. This is the Zone 3 project.

Helen OY has other initiatives planned such as using a huge cavern under Helsinki to store hot water and using batteries extensively to store excess power. It is also envisaged that customers will be able to sell excess power back to the grid but this will be implemented later.

Our thanks go to Marja for providing us with information and insights into the mySMARTLife project with enthusiasm and clear explanations.