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Scandinavia Looks to Solar in ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’

Northern regions as far as the Arctic Circle are increasingly turning to the power of the midnight sun to keep their communities humming, feeding hopes that carbon neutrality by 2035 may be within reach.

Exhibit A is Oulu, Finland, the research and development hub for telecom giant Nokia, which is located “just 100 miles shy of the Arctic Circle, a geography known not for its sunny climes but rather its dark, snowbound, sub-zero winters,” reports InsideClimate News.

Partnering with Finland’s largest printing company, Kaleva Media, in 2015, the city “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.”

The eight solar panels on Kaleva Media’s roof were an “extraordinary spectacle” when they were first revealed five years ago, writes InsideClimate. Today, the 1,604 PV units aren’t even the biggest installation Oulu has to offer. 

“The general perception had been that the further north you go, the harder it was to make a business case,” said Henrik Borreby, the Nordic representative for global renewable energy developer BayWa r.e. But that’s no longer the case, since technological improvements in PV cells have “driven the price way down”. 

Borreby conceded 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.” That’s why “a range of start-up incentives, from rebates to tax credits,” have been critical to the success of northern solar, says InsideClimate. Norway, in particular, “established building codes that require some form of renewable energy generation in every new building.”

But by now, “solar has taken off—and is largely subsidy-free, except in Sweden.” Rather than chasing incentives, businesses and citizens are installing the technology simply to reduce their electricity bills.

Adding to the attraction is that, “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 in a clear rout of solar sceptics, “the solar pioneers of the north country have discovered that their environs actually proffer certain advantages for the technology”—specifically, that cooler temperatures can boost the output of PV panels by up to 25%. 

Nevertheless, solar is unlikely to play a starring role in Finland’s energy mix anytime soon. As in other northern jurisdictions, the energy needs of heavy industries, particularly through the dark and cold winter, currently require a diverse energy supply. In Finland, that includes waste incineration, wood pellets, hydroelectricity, geothermal, and wind—as well as peat, nuclear, and fossil fuels. 

While plans are in place to phase out the latter within the next decade, reports InsideClimate, peat is more controversial. Currently, peat burning “produces most of the country’s heat and a good share of its electricity,” a reality that leaves a “mega question” on the table for 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?”