When the 1973 oil crisis hit, Finnish daily life was restricted in many ways with the use of the Emergency Powers Act. Speed limits were set at 80 km/h and cars could not be preheated if the temperature was colder than -10°C. The temperatures in apartments and in offices could be 20°C at the most.
These restrictions, which came with penalties for infraction, were largely accepted.
“The restrictions were accepted without objections. That may have been a legacy of the war. Finns were accustomed to acting collectively and accepting orders from above,” says Kaisa Matschoss, a university researcher who specializes in energy transition.
A new energy transition is now underway. The importation of oil and gas from Russia has ceased and there’s a necessity to abandon fossil fuels which contribute to climate change. The difference between the 1970s oil crisis and now is that the current world is more vulnerable when it comes to power failures. Consumers aren’t as passive as they once were, and restrictions won’t be accepted without good reason – they must be justified.
“A socially beneficial energy transition would require that an ever-greater number of people accept the required measures. In addition, people themselves must play a more active role. A future is appearing in front of us where citizens are a source of change, and not just subjects of it.” says Matschoss.
Energy consumers becoming energy producers
A reason as to why we are seeing the democratization of energy is that the consumers of energy are also the becoming producers of energy. Even now an individual can sell the surplus energy from their solar panels back to the energy grid. This practice is not particularly widespread, but its role will become more significant as the use of solar panels increases.
The EU has set expectations for citizen energy communities, which have already started to develop in southern Europe and Germany. These energy communities can be in the form of a housing associations, or many of them together forming a network of energy producers.
An EU directive from 2019 about the internal market of electricity states that communal energy can improve households’ energy efficiency and help fight energy poverty by lowering consumption and the price of supply.
In the future, electric cars might also contribute to the equation. Their batteries could be used for backup power during temporary consumption spikes.
If electric cars that are being charged could provide electricity from their batteries to the power grid, there would be no need to resort to expensive and polluting coal power. The price of electricity would remain reasonable, and all would benefit. Similar systems are already in use in Japan.
Another option that might become popular is demand-side flexibility services, in which people give their electricity companies permission to control their electricity consumption remotely.
“If the power company notices that the price will spike at a certain moment, they can make freezers colder when there’s more energy available,” says Matchoss.
Afterwards, freezers could be temporarily disconnected from the power grid once electricity prices have hit their peak.
The technology for a flexible system exists. Freezers alone, of course, would not revolutionize the energy system, but with a proactive approach, water heaters and heat pumps could likewise be controlled remotely. When the batteries of electric cars and private solar panels are taken into account, these small streams create a mighty river of possibilities for the flexibility of demand.
No wind, no electricity
The need for flexibility will increase in the future, especially with the strong growth of wind power. The Finnish national electricity grid operator Fingrid has estimated that wind power will account for nearly 80% of energy production by the end of the 2020s. But it’s a question of capacity rather than production because if there’s no wind, then there’s no electricity. So there needs to be a greater balance of power sources in the market.
“The uncertainty and volatility of the electricity market is here to stay. But the democratization of energy can still be strengthened,” says Matschoss. “If energy production is decentralized, then citizen energy communities made up housing associations can gain power in the market.”
Matschoss points to a study which claims that only 3.5% of people are needed to make a political change for example through starting to boycott something.
“If 3.5% of the population was active in the energy market, would they have enough power that they would have to be listened to?” she asks.
Matschoss is confident about the future. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is necessary to mitigate climate change. And Russia's military actions are fueling energy advancements.
Finland has been predicted to be self-sufficient in electricity by 2024, thanks in large part to wind power and the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant.
“That’s so soon! The media have generated panic with their coverage of disasters, but people would survive the winter better if they had good news about the developments,” says Matschoss. “Instead there are temporary shocks to the prices and availability of energy.”
Matschoss is, however, concerned about how fair the energy transition process will be since not everyone will be able to afford to install solar panels, buy an electric car or power a smart home.
Energy can increase inequality
There are plans to erect wind turbines on land belonging to the Sámi communities in Finland and Norway, but these have been met with opposition from Sámi people. In 2021, the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that a power company had violated the right of Sámi people to herd reindeer since the company’s wind turbines had made it too difficult for the Sámi to earn a living.
Other regions in Finland have a different relationship to wind power and its economic impact. On the west coast, wind power generates large tax revenues. On the other hand, the radar stations of the Finnish Defense Forces have prevented the construction of power plants in eastern Finland, which is home to an aging and less wealthy population.
When asked about how energy can increase inequality in society, Matschoss says “The government must make sure that certain groups of people do not suffer because they can’t participate in the energy transition process.”
The article was published in Yliopisto magazine on 1/2023 in Finnish. It was translated by Ville Elenius, Annika Eronen, Tuomas Haapanen, Frans Hannila, Liisa Harju, Ritva Hirviniemi, Joel Kartovaara, Anna Laine, Samuli Laine, Julia Laukkanen, Roosa Luokovaara, Nea Mikkelä, Teemu Niemelä, Markus Nikkinen, Tuisku Nurminen, Julianna Nyman, Marjaana Oikarinen, Sofia Rantanen, Ronja Tamminen and revised under the supervision of Joe McVeigh, university teacher in English.
The energy market has been disrupted by Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. European countries are trying to control the problem by acquiring liquefied petroleum gas terminals and by extending the life of nuclear power plants.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but we still need to make estimates about the future of energy. Population growth is easy to predict and it greatly influences consumption models. Power plants – both current and projected – can also be factored into the future energy consumption equation.
But technological developments are more difficult to predict, according to Kai Nordlund, a professor of Computational Materials Physics.
“As recently as ten years ago, most people did not think that solar power would be a good source of energy because it was so expensive then,” says Nordlund.
The estimates about hydrofracking, which is used in oil drilling, were also wrong.
“Hydrofracking has increased the production of oil and has made oil cheaper,” says Nordlund. “This has changed the forecast, but in a negative way.”
Hydrofracking has also increased carbon emissions and caused earthquakes.
The underlying technology of iron-air batteries was developed in the 1800s
Nordlund thinks that iron-air batteries, which were first developed in the 1800s, are particularly promising. An iron-air battery works by “breathing” in oxygen and turning iron into rust, which then produces energy that it can discharge. In order to recharge, the battery reverses this process by releasing oxygen and turning the rust back into iron with the help of an electric current.
Iron-air batteries are currently too heavy and unreliable for cars.
But interest in these batteries is spiking because they might be able to tore energy from wind and solar farms and so, like hydropower, they can act as an alternative source of energy. And their primary materials are simple: iron, water and air.
“Just a single scientific breakthrough which could put the technology into practice would be enough to lead Earth into a fossil-free future,” says Nordlund. “In the long term, I believe that fusion energy can become our basic source of power and replace our modern coal and fission power plants.”