UPDATE 28 November: On 24 November, the Finnish government approved its national energy and climate strategy. The strategy calls for completely phasing out coal for energy production in the 2020s—a move requiring either taxation or explicit legal prohibition. The government is submitting the strategy as a report to the Finnish parliament, where discussion will begin on 30 November.
On 24 November, as people in the United States are preparing to sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, Finland’s government will unveil its newest energy and climate policy. What will observers have to be thankful for? Many are hoping Finland’s energy plan will include a complete ban on coal by 2030. Scientists, politicians, and industry experts believe that such a ban is actually feasible.
“I think this could work,” says Peter Lund, a renewable energy researcher at Aalto University in Finland.
The Finnish government does not have the power to enact a ban itself—Finland’s parliament would have the final say—but several other places around the world have already made similar anti-coal commitments. Among them are the U.S. state of Oregon and the province of Ontario, Canada.
In Europe, the Danish government wants Denmark to be fossil-free by 2050, and the British government plans to phase out the last of its coal-fired plants by 2025. But neither country has enacted a law explicitly prohibiting coal. If Finland follows through with an anti-coal statute, it would be the first country to have a ban on the books, Helsinki Times reports.
In 2015, only eight percent of Finland’s energy generation—heat and electricity—came from coal, according to Statistics Finland. The country imports it from nations to its southeast—primarily Russia.
Riku Huttunen, Director General of the Energy Department of Finland’s Ministry of Economics and Employment, told IEEE Spectrum that a ban would be possible because of the direction the country is already heading.
Huttunen says that coal plants that generate only electricity and not heat are either under consideration for decommission or already scheduled for it. He expects only one of them to be left by 2030.
Plants that generate combined heat and power can typically use different fuels, he says.
On its current trajectory, coal could wind down to about 1 percent of Finland’s energy mix by 2030. (He writes in an email that some coal would still be stored for “exceptional” situations such as a lack of fuel supply during peak demand hours or a crisis, but not for regular use.) This drop to an even smaller trickle would happen in a couple of ways.
First, energy needs would be lowered with energy efficiency improvements for buildings, with a focus on “smart grids, demand response, and overall flexibility,” Huttunen says.
Meanwhile, coal would be replaced by two primary sources: additional nuclear power and wood-based bioenergy fed by leftovers from the forestry industry. Expanded wind power is also an option, he says.
The switch away from coal to alternative sources is already happening in Finland’s cities. In the capital, Helsinki, there are currently two coal-fired power plants. One will be shut down in 2024 and swapped for smaller plants running on biomass and geothermal energy, says the deputy mayor, Pekka Sauri.
“There’s no chance you can ban coal by tomorrow,” says Sauri. But, “with some luck,” it might be possible to do, even in as short of a timeframe as 2030, he says.
Lund, who chairs the energy panel of an independent European Union science advisory council made up of national science academies, analyzed some ways to address Finland’s energy efficiency as part of research published in Energy in 2007.
He believes that energy efficiency improvements could be applied across industry, businesses, and residences. Residents could lower their thermostats by one or two degrees, homes could use heat pumps instead of electric heating, and buildings could be built with better insulation, ventilation, and lighting. In the industrial sector, pump flow systems for liquids could be optimized—by replacing traditional on/off control or flow throttling with different regulation.
“That all piles up to major improvements,” says Lund.
Although he agrees that wood-based biofuel could be a short-term replacement for coal, he points out that the biofuel is not a sustainable fuel source. About 80 percent of the country’s bioenergy now comes from Finland’s forests, which cover about 75 percent of the country's land area.
When the forest industry produces timber for construction, paper, and pulp, the processes leave behind by-products such as black liquor, wood residues, and wood chips—suitable for energy use.
Huttunen says there is a surplus of trees, so there would be enough to meet increased demand. He writes that the energy produced is “economically and environmentally sustainable,” but Lund warns that the existing production strategy could “actually cause an increase in CO2 emissions.”
Trees naturally absorb carbon during photosynthesis, thus acting as carbon sinks. Huttunen writes that the trees eyed for use as biomass grow faster than they’re used; by 2030, he says, the sink could be pulling about 15 million tons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere. Still, Lund worries that a plan relying on leftovers from logging for energy may make it difficult to meet the emission requirements of the Paris Climate Agreement. He says it takes 60 to 70 years for the cut trees to grow back.
An alternative could be importing bioenergy sources from other countries, or simply planting more faster-growing trees, such as Salix willow and poplar, Lund says.
Another potential issue Lund points out is a switch to nuclear. He thinks that the four existing nuclear reactors in Finland should be at the end of their lives by 2030, with maybe a couple years of wiggle room, depending on the results of safety inspections. But they would remain commissioned until 2035 at the latest.
According to Huttunen, two units might be shut down by 2030, but the others would probably continue to run afterward. A fifth unit would come online by the end of 2018, and the government might decide to build a sixth in 2018.
But even if proven possible, there’s still a leap from there to probable. Part of that gulf is financial concerns.
Sauri says replacing existing plants would require “considerable investment.” A spokesperson for Finnish Energy told Helsinki Times that there would need to be “substantial compensation” to energy producers. Huttunen writes that production would be cheaper with alternative sources, but also that CO2 taxation is a “clear incentive.”
“Now we know that the outlook for coal production is not really good,” says Esa Hyvärinen, a spokesperson for Fortum Corporation, an international energy firm with interests in Europe and Russia. While zero coal might work, he doesn’t think a ban would have a significant effect on Europe’s CO2 emissions.
The EU has a trading system where companies cover their yearly emissions with allowances. Hyvärinen explains that another member state could just increase emissions while paying less.
Hyvärinen believes there’s a better way to decrease CO2 emissions: Instead of limiting the technology toolbox, lower the existing emissions cap and let industry decide what technologies let it meet that goal.