OULU, Finland — For years after northern Finland's largest printing plant blanketed its facility's eight roofs with solar panels, the curious beat a path to the extraordinary spectacle.
There were skeptics who doubted that solar power would pay off in this northern city, just 100 miles shy of the Arctic Circle, a geography known not for its sunny climes but rather its dark, snow-bound, sub-zero winters.
"They wanted to see what we'd done, how it worked, whether it worked," said Juha Röning, chief technician at the Kaleva Media printing plant. In 2015, the 1,604 solar photovoltaic (PV) units made Kaleva Media's rooftop the most powerful photovoltaic solar plant in Finland, and indeed in all of Scandinavia's north country.
Today, Kaleva Media's rooftop PV park is no longer a curiosity—it's not even the largest solar producer in the city of Oulu, much less all of Finland. Across Europe's far north, municipalities, businesses and households are increasingly taking advantage of solar power as solar cells' efficiency increases and costs fall.
While Germany was experiencing its mega solar boom in the 2000s, in Nordic countries like Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Finland the sight of a suburban home with a PV panel was an oddity. Today, although still dwarfed by Germany's solar force, tens of thousands of buildings, from Copenhagen to the Arctic Circle, brandish the cutting edge in solar tech.
"The technological developments in PV [cells] have driven the price way down," said Henrik Borreby, the Nordic representative of BayWa r.e., a global renewable energy developer. "The general perception had been that the further north you go, the harder it was to make a business case, even impossible. That's not so anymore," he said, though he acknowledged that the further north one pushes—and the lower the domestic power price—the longer it takes to make the upfront investment in solar pay itself back.
Europe's Nordic countries, roughly at the latitude of Alaska, are pushing the boundaries of solar power deployment.
They boast some of the world's most progressive climate protection agendas, and much of the momentum behind the growth of renewables there stems from their national action plans, which are designed to meet the Paris Agreement's goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius. Norway is still a major oil producer, but Finland's new progressive government—led by the world's youngest prime minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin—has set ambitious decarbonization targets that would render the country of 5.5 million carbon neutral by 2035.
Part of the Nordic strategy was to offer a range of start-up incentives, from rebates to tax credits, intended to get solar up and running. Norway also established building codes that require some form of renewable energy generation in every new building. Now that solar has taken off—and is largely subsidy free, except in Sweden—the straightforward motive of most municipalities, businesses and private households is to cut back on their electricity bills.
In the Nordic countries' foray into solar PV, there are more than a few takeaways for North America.
For one, solar technology has come so far—today's PV cells are many times more efficient than those of a decade ago—that the deployment of solar makes sense in most of the world.
Most locations with high energy prices no longer require incentives of any kind to make solar cost effective. Moreover, experts say they expect solar cells' productivity to continue to increase and prices to drop accordingly. This downward trajectory applies to home battery storage, too. Subsidy-free solar is expected to inch ever higher north, including eventually utility-size parks of the kind being constructed now in southern Denmark.
The price of solar panels has fallen so much, says Samuli Rinne, an energy engineer heading up an EU smart-energy project in Oulu, that business owners have can put panels on their office buildings' southern facade at a cheaper cost than some of the more expensive building materials. Solar sector representatives in Europe say that while just five years ago the lion's share of the price of a household solar system was the hardware (panels, inverter, battery, digital management program) and not the installations costs, today it is the other way around.
Moreover, for the rural northlands, be they in Finland or Minnesota, off-grid stand-alone solar packages provide back-up where the power supply is unreliable and can act as the sole energy source for small dwellings where there's no grid connection at all.
Land of the Midnight Sun
"It's possible to have solar panels on almost every city-owned building in Oulu," said Matti Matinheikki, Oulu's point person for environment and energy. As for the private sector in this tech-savvy city, it's racing forward on its own, Matinheikki notes.
Oulu is an old port city on the Gulf of Bothina, with a population of 200,000 and a thriving technology sector. In the 2000s, it was the R&D hub of the Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia at its zenith. When Nokia began downsizing in 2009 and 2010, shedding thousands of jobs in Oulu, most observers thought the city would founder. But it lured foreign investment and branched out into artificial intelligence, advanced modems, computer engineering, robotics and smart grids, among other related sectors. And Nokia itself is still the city's largest employer.
Natives of Oulu are quick to point out that though the winters here are indeed shrouded in darkness—the city enjoys just two hours of pale daylight in deepest December—Arctic summers boast some of the planet's longest days, when photovoltaic cells can churn out power almost around the clock.
The Kaleva Media printing house relies on the sun primarily to power cooling processes for its printing machines and IT servers—solar covers 90 percent of its machinery's demand on June days. Röning underscored that while even in high summer the solar park doesn't supply all of its needs, strong mid-day solar generation lops off the costly midday peaks of its energy use when electricity costs soar saving the company money.
Kaleva Media and the city of Oulu ventured into energy no-man's land in the far north at the prodding of Oulun Energia, the city-owned utility, which had an eye on Finland's undeveloped solar market and today is one of the leading solar suppliers nationwide. Oulun Energia convinced Kaleva Media that it could pay off a $710,000 investment in about nine years.
The solar pioneers of the north country have discovered that their environs actually proffer certain advantages for the technology beyond round-the-clock summer days. The output of PV panels is significantly greater when they're not overheated, which can happen in sun-blessed southerly regions. This cool-temperature perk gives northerners more bang for the euro: up to 25 percent more electricity per hour.
The Finns also swear by vertical PV installations. These are walls—usually southward-facing facades—composed of hundreds of collectors that turn buildings into vertical power generators. The solar walls' angle and location maximizes the rays of the Finnish winter's low-slung sun, as well as light's reflection off the snow. Kaleva Media's downtown office building sports a solar wall, as does the city's power plant.
The printing plant has another tip to pass on to fellow northerners enticed by solar. There's no consensus in the north country about clearing snow from panels: Some do it, some don't. Kaleva decided that removing the prodigious winter snow from the rooftop PV field was not worth the cost. But in its second year of operation, it discovered that the weight of three feet of soggy springtime snow caused several of the panels' aluminum frames to collapse. Come spring, however, even though the affected modules were a bit mangled and skewed, they continued generating electricity. Frameless modules, according to some experts, may be the way to go in frozen dominions.
A Diverse Mix of Power Sources
"Solar makes sense for us, but only as part of a diverse energy supply," said Oulu's mayor, Päivi Laajala.
Oulu's energy supply, like Finland's, also includes wood pellets, waste incineration, bioenergy, hydro-electric, geothermal and wind, as well as nuclear and peat and the fossil fuels natural gas and coal, which are set to be phased out within the next decade. All the Nordic countries have diverse energy supplies, which are balanced through a Nordic-wide transmission grid.
"We've been working on making the city more sustainable for well over a decade," said Laajala, citing advances in energy efficiency, hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes and ubiquitous charging stations for electric vehicles. "But things are moving so fast in so many fields that we really can't make plans more than two years in advance."
Nuclear power is a part of Finland's greater low-carbon solution, which is backed by most Finns, including Oulu's mayor.
Finland's heavy industry requires the kind of stable baseline supply that nuclear provides, Laajala said. Currently, Finland imports gas and coal energy from Russia, a fact that unsettles Finns concerned about the country's energy security, and inclines them to favor domestic power. Yet it is a Russian firm that will provide much of the technology for the nuclear power station 50 miles south of Oulu.
A much thornier issue for Finns, especially in the north, is the incineration of peat, which produces most of the country's heat and a good share of its electricity. (Finnish companies harvest the high-emissions fuel from peatlands and swamps, largely in Lapland, north of Oulu.) Yet the carbon dioxide intensity of peat's emissions is as high or higher than that of coal and natural gas, and thus a major obstacle in the path of decarbonizing the nation. One of the largest peat-fired power plants in the world is near Oulu—it sports a vertical solar array.
The mega question looming over Oulu and all of Finland: Can solar, wind and other renewables replace the peat- and coal-fired plants in order to make Finland carbon neutral by 2035?