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The Low2No project is designed to help transition our cities to a low carbon future. We aim to balance economy, ecology and society through strategic investments and interventions in the built environment.

Visit to Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant

Those embarking on major urban developments often conduct study tours in order to benchmark their plans against current best practice. As Low2No begins to pick up pace, we’re beginning to become a stop on such tours, even though there’s only a hole in the ground in terms of tangible progress at Jätkäsaari.

Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant, Helsinki [Dan Hill]
Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant, Helsinki [Dan Hill]

Last weekend, the Low2No team received visitors from a major urban planning project in Melbourne, Australia. I’d worked on that project’s initiation stage when at Arup, co-running one of the original design charrettes with Grimshaw Architects, who make up the project’s core designers with Field Operations out of New York. So it was great to see familiar faces at a very different latitude, and lead them through 24 hours worth of download about Low2No and the context of urban development in Helsinki.

Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant, Helsinki [Dan Hill]
Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant, Helsinki [Dan Hill]

The Australian-based team, led by the Victorian State Government, and in particular the State’s urban development arm, VicUrban, were particularly interested in our take on energy generation and consumption, including behaviour change and consumer attitudes, in terms of Low2No. As they’d just flown in from Stockholm that morning (previously having seen projects such as Bo01 in Malmö and Orestad in Copenhagen), I woke them up with a brisk walk around Töölönlahti, still beautiful despite the slate grey skies and northerly breeze. And later that afternoon, we hosted a summit at Sitra HQ, with Sitra project leaders Jukka Noponen and Marco Steinberg.

In between, however, we hosted a tour of Helsinki’s best-kept secrets— the vast, underground district heating and cooling system at Katri Vala Park in the Sörnäinen district.

Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant, Helsinki [Dan Hill]
Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant, Helsinki [Dan Hill]

Niko Wirgentius of Helsingin Energia was kind enough to give up his Saturday afternoon to show us around this extraordinary facility. There’s more information at the Helsingin Energia website, though it’s probably fair to see that this is something you have to experience in the flesh to understand the significance of this scale of investment.

Niko led our team through an unmarked door and down into the plant. It’s around 25 metres underground though there are numerous tunnels leading in and out that go a lot deeper. The equipment is of course enormous, contained within cave after cave blasted from the firm bedrock that Helsinki sits upon (which is what partly enables the city’s extensive network of subterranean infrastructure.) Equipment is manufactured all over Europe, with the country of origin represented by a flag stuck on the side. These plants are connected by energy tunnels and service corridors which run for tens of kilometres, sometimes via underground lakes, in all directions.
Wirgentius is quick to point out that it’s the world’s largest heat pump, but what the facility does is simple; it just does it at scale.

Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant, Helsinki [Dan Hill]
Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant, Helsinki [Dan Hill]

“A high volume of purified wastewater, the heat of which is utilised in district heat production, flows in the wastewater outfall tunnel 24 hours a day. In winter, heat energy is obtained with heat pumps from purified wastewater, which is led from the Viikinmäki central waste water treatment plant to the sea. In winter, the necessary district cooling energy is obtained direct from the sea with heat exchangers. In summer, heat energy is transmitted from the return water in district cooling, in which case the heat pumps produce both district heat and district cooling. If all of the heat produced in the summer season is not needed, the extra heat can be condensed into the sea.”

It’s a great example of a form of symbiosis, in which the waste from one system is the input into another, and the plant supplies around 40,000 residents in the district above with heating and cooling, most of whom are oblivious to the infrastructure beneath their buildings (the plant’s exact location is secret.)

The scale of investment is also impressive – the ability of the city to plan for the future by investing in such infrastructure impressed the Victorian team no end. But, as Wirgentius pointed out, the city is probably going to be around in 20 years, and will probably require some heating; it’s not a risky investment in that sense.

With Low2No, we’re currently exploring a mixed approach to energy generation, including photovoltaic for partial energy generation as well as geothermal, and with the bulk of heating and cooling requirements handled by a bio-heat product developed by Helsingin Energia. The Australian team were also interested in our approach to behaviour change and consumer behaviour, which has been developed by Arup and Experientia so far. More to follow on all that.

Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant, Helsinki [Dan Hill]
Katri Vala district heating and cooling plant, Helsinki [Dan Hill]

You don’t have to be an infrastructure geek to be impressed by Katri Vala — though those of us in the team who are had to be dragged away from exploring some of the deeper tunnels —but the aspects that the Victorian team were still talking about late into evening atop the Hotel Torni were the ability for a city to not only plan sustainable infrastructure requirements into the future, but to make and deliver upon the investment case too.

June 6th, 2011

Posted by: Dan Hill

Category: Field Reports