You would never know anything is different about this neighbourhood as the sun rises over frosted rooftops, lighting up the toy-filled lawns and bouncing off of curtained windows.
But this nondescript corner of Kempele, Finland is where green energy and northern possibilities have intersected in a totally unique way.
It’s barely 8 am, but Jarno Haapakoski is at the office engrossed in his laptop. Haapakoski is the CEO of Volter, a leading green company in Finland and the creator of the first and only northern ecovillage. This project has been his baby for six years.
“These 10 buildings have never been attached to the grid,” Haapakoski begins gesturing through the wall in the direction of the neighbourhood the office looks onto.
The idea began in 1997 when now-prominent Finnish politician Juha Sipilä wanted to build a summer home in Kempele, but needed an electricity connection.
The city’s quote was 425, 000 Finnish Marks [71, 479 euro] – more than the house would cost to build. Sipilä began searching for alternatives.
“The technology wasn’t ready at that point. And so he hired a couple of us young engineers who didn’t know it wasn’t possible,” chuckles Haapakoski.
The group developed a wood gas power plant. The process is relatively streamlined: wood chips are converted into wood gas, which is cooled and used to run a generator motor. The generator, in turn, creates electricity and heats water for ten homes all year round. Any excess electricity is stored in three large battery packs.
Haapakoski walks out to the back of the office building and into a storage room where he shows a green box – the first ever Volter prototype generator.
Beside the generator a 10, 000 L water tank sits with pipes shooting out in all directions.
All the ecovillage homes are heated by water rather than electricity. The water in the tank is heated and pumped out to the homes through a grid, Haapakoski explains. Each house has radiant-heat flooring that warms the house without using electricity.
“We have minimized the electricity consumption,” says Haapakoski of the power plant, which produces twice as much heat energy as electricity. “To make it efficient you have to utilize the heat.”
Living off the grid often evokes stale tropes involving one bath a week, washing clothes by hand and reading by candlelight. Not so in the Kempele ecovillage.
Houses are outfitted with full kitchens, use low-energy electric lights, have reinforced windows and some have indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis. Naturally all of the ecovillage homes have saunas, but they use wood rather than electric stoves “which is the only right way,” says Haapakoski.
It was important to the residents – and to Volter – that living in an ecovillage didn’t mean having to compromise on quality of life.
“Instead of developing the equipment in a workshop, [Sipilä] wanted to build a real reference. If you’ve got 10 houses you can’t tell them, ‘Nope, you aren’t getting electricity tomorrow.’ So it forced us to make it work.”
One Volter wood gas powered generator – costing approximately €200, 000 – produces enough energy for a few houses, a hotel or a large farm.
It’s a manageable investment for a group, which is what happened in Kempele. Ten families banded together and built their homes adding on a €10 000 fee each for the Volter power plant.
In Finland, where utilities are extremely cheap, the investment took about seven years to generate returns. In other countries, where electricity and heat are more expensive, the saving could appear in three or four years.
“I want to get into countries where the natural enablers are already there,” explains Haapakoski. “People in [northern] Canada are burning their forests to avoid forest fire and they are using oil. The oil truck drives through the woods all the way…how does that make sense?”
The cost of transporting diesel fuel into Canadian northern communities comes in around $27 CAD per litre. Fuel is flown in to feed diesel generators that need to be maintained weekly and replaced entirely every 15 years. “That’s crazy” say Haapakoski shaking his head.
A 2011 report from the Canadian government states, “The cost of producing off-grid electricity from diesel generators can be up to 10 times higher than electricity generated on the main grid.”
The communities in Canada that are off the grid could be costing millions to light, heat up and maintain based on the current system. Annual costs for household power for five people could be upwards of $10, 000 according to some estimates.
“To produce heat and electricity for a five person family, for one year, you need about 20 solid cubic metres of wood,” says Haapakoski of Kempele’s consumption. Each cubic metre of wood costs the community about €30 and the power plant consumes about 2.5 cubic metres of wood chips per day. A family in the ecovillage pays about €1500 each year for heating and electricity.
So far there are seven Volter units in Finland, three in England, and one set for delivery to Canada in three weeks. Volter is starting to establish itself as an international firm – a primary goal for the company.
But it still has the feel of a local, albeit successful, start up; especially when just ten minutes down the road is the production factory.
The generator being assembled is the one that will be shipped to Canada in a few weeks time. It’s going to power a hotel in the northern town of Timmins, Haapakoski says.
Though the ecovillage prototype was sprawling and bore the marks of years of tinkering and adjusting, the Canadian-bound unit is a svelte pod and looks as though it was designed by a high-end carmaker. The beveled edges, crisp white exterior and snazzy green trim underscore how far the company has come and where, with a transatlantic installation imminent, it intends to go.
“It hasn’t been easy,” says Haapakoski. “We knew from the beginning it wasn’t going to be easy, but we believed we could do it…and it’s been a good time.”