Nokia’s downfall fires Finland to top of clean energy tech production

What you need to know:

  • When the once giant phone company was caught flat-footed by the wave of smartphones, leading to thousands of job cuts, Helsinki turned its focus on a more strategic sector; cleantech and it has been reaping the dividends ever since.

The collapse of Nokia, once a mobile phone juggernaut, was a bitter pill for Finland as it pulled a dark cloud over the country’s economy with thousands of jobs suddenly evaporating into thin air and revenue streams drying up.

The European nation may be down but certainly not out of the world stage in shaping future developments. It is largely in clean technology (cleantech) for health, energy and waste management.

“Finland is keen to fashion itself as an intelligent economy, powered by research and development (R&D) in areas in which we have comparative advantage over the rest of the world,” says Risto Huhta-Koivisto of FinPro – a Finnish government agency in charge of promoting trade, investment and tourism.

It is this laser-sharp focus on strategic areas that is fast turning the Nordic country into a powerhouse in waste management and bioenergy technology.

The country’s think-tanks and corporate honchos are well aware that global demand for energy will continue to widen with a special emphasis on clean power generation as the world races to tame emissions from fossil fuel power plants.

Armed with this market reality, the Finns have taken a deep dive into clean energy production using readily available materials like agricultural waste, wood waste and packaging waste (plastics and polythene papers).

A visit to Finland takes you to the heart of this technological drive as you snake your way through the forested country, dotted with bioenergy plants and research hubs.

It boasts expansive infrastructure that seems to swallow the tiny population of 5.5 million people.

For a visitor, the clean streetways and boulevards of Helsinki look almost deserted, with imposing buildings while motorists cruise smoothly on the large network of roads, crossed by tramways.

Cleantech has quickly become the buzzword on Finland’s streets, academic halls, research labs and corporate boardrooms as the country makes the march towards becoming a giant machine churning out sustainable, clean technology solutions.

The knowledge that up to 60 per cent of the world’s generated waste goes to waste is yet another reason Finnish companies are pumping billions of euros in research to develop cutting-edge technologies to re-use and recycle waste.

Kenya is one such market where a number of Finnish firms have operations in renewable energy space.

For instance, Finnish Fund for Industrial Co-operation Ltd (Finnfund) is one of the partners in the consortium developing Lake Turkana Wind Power project in Kenya’s northern town of Marsabit.

The 310-megawatt (MW) multibillion-shilling wind farm is set to be the largest in Africa and will be completed mid-next year.

Nocart is another Finnish firm on the Kenyan market that has constructed several biogas power plants powered by animal waste and is now eyeing deals to produce energy from dump sites in counties.

“There is a lot of gain from Kenya’s dump sites if only the waste can be put to use,” Nocart director of business development in Africa Jussi Alaputto said during an energy tour for journalists in Finland.

Previous efforts by Kenya’s capital to generate electricity from dump sites have been unsuccessful.

In September 2013, Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero awarded a German firm Sustainable Energy Management UG (SEM) the rights to construct a Sh28 billion plant to use garbage from the Dandora dump site to generate electricity.

The Nairobi plant was expected to be completed this year but failed to take off.

A similar plant by Finland-based Westenergy cost Sh14.6 billion (€130 million) with a capacity of 13 MW of electricity, enough to power 7,000 households.

Its cost is nearly half the one proposed in Kenya which was expected to use solid waste to produce methane gas – a key component in power production.

The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) declared the Dandora dumpsite full in 2011 but trucks of waste continue to roar their way to the 30-acre piece of land.

The Finnish plant, which uses non-recyclable waste to generate energy, has a capacity to produce 40 MW of steam to heat homes and offices through channeled pipes during cold seasons.

Finland has an energy capacity of over 30,000 MW mainly from hydroelectric sources and four nuclear plants with a population of 5.5 million people compared to Kenya’s population of 45 million and energy capacity of 2,400 MW.

Bioenergy, solar and wind plants supplement the country’s energy needs.

Despite the low population, the industrialised country has high power needs to drive industries ranging from makers of ship engines, generators, paper mills, electrical equipment and machinery.

Finland, a member of the European Union, has a vast forest cover and the economy once relied on paper exports before Nokia thrust it to the global limelight with mobile phones.

The Finns always joke that Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple, took away their jobs.

They reckon that Apple’s iPhone that Steve Jobs co-founded took competition to the doorsteps of Nokia and slashed the market for paper as printing budgets shrunk in favour of e-paper communication.

The fading fortune of Nokia, which was bought out by Microsoft, has now seen Helsinki pull its weight behind bioenergy and waste management.

The nation boasts the largest energy cluster in the region located in Vaasa region – widely known as the energy capital and hub of Finland.

Vaasa is home to 140 energy companies involved in renewable energy, smart grid and energy efficiency technologies.

The companies have forged deep collaborations with universities to develop new ideas that will shape future inventions.

They have a total annual turnover of about Sh493 billion (€4.4 billion) and employ 11,000 people.

About 80 per cent of the manufactured products like big diesel engines, generators and electronic equipment are exported, making the energy cluster a crucial foreign exchange earner.

Several companies like Wärtsilä Oy have won multiple contracts in Kenya’s energy sector to build substations and plants, including the Kipevu III thermal plant in Mombasa.

Finnish firms are also bullish on providing smart-grid solutions, including automating the grid to enable the monitoring of power infrastructure in real-time through remote sensing.

Grid automation makes it easy to locate the cause for power outage, enabling faster repair and less inconvenience to consumers.

The firms also provide system stabilisers in a national grid being fed by a mix of energy sources, including intermittent sources like wind and solar.

The increased use of bioenergy for electricity and heating homes has over the years seen Finland cut its import bill for gas from Russia, improving Helsinki’s current account.

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