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Finnish Companies Hope to Derive Energy From Trees, Tires

Finland already ranks as one of the world's greenest countries, but a pair of the country's energy startups hope that trees and tires could help meet its future demands for eco-friendly power.

Finland already ranks as one of the world's greenest countries, but a pair of the country's energy startups hope that trees and tires could help meet its future demands for eco-friendly power.

Volter developed a system to generate electricity and heat from wood chips, while Ecomation believes that the chemicals in used tires and plastics could be recycled as fuel for power plants.

Volter traces its origin back nearly two decades, when businessman Juha Sipilä began powering his cottage with wood instead of paying exorbitant costs to an electric utility.

Sipilä current serves as the country's prime minister, but the system he developed now powers a housing complex in the coastal city of Oulu, along with residences, farms and industrial sites across 10 countries.

 

The structures, which cost about $180,000, include a reactor that converts wood chips into wood gas, which is cooled, filtered and cooled again to generate 40 kilowatts of electrical capacity and 100 kilowatts of heat.

Company officials told reporters during a visit to its Kempele headquarters last week that their system enables the most efficient energy production and longest lifecycle among rival gasification systems. The units can be most easily deployed on farms, but officials said that incorporating the systems in cities remains challenging because of the need to capitalize on heat to make them cost-effective.

The system can be shipped around the world in a conventional shipping container, and, most importantly, provides energy that is considered carbon-neutral because of the carbon dioxide consumed by harvested trees.

Volter managing director Jarno Haapakoski conceded that he is a believer in the potential of solar energy, but he said that those systems won't satisfy the world's energy needs — particularly in dark Finnish winters.

"If you want to go green you cannot rely purely on solar," he said. "I think the optimal solution is something combined."

About 400 miles to the south, Salo-based Ecomation is working on a system to extract oil, gas carbon and even steel from the world's vast stockpiles of spent vehicle tires.

Company officials said that Ecomation's pyrolysis process utilizes steam to break tires down into more useful materials with little smoke emissions. Installing the system in conventional power plants could allow them to effectively replace the oil ordinarily required.

"There is a lot of energy left in tires," CEO Tommi Pajala told reporters.

He said that the company has sold two systems to date. They cost about $2.1 million each, but installation can be completed in less than one year and customers effectively get their money back within three years.

Pajala conceded, however, that continued low oil prices hurt the market for alternative systems.

Both companies currently feature a small group of investors and employees, but Helsinki investment firm Taaleri owns significant minority stakes in both as they attempt to revolutionize the world's energy mix.

"The principle of it is simple," Pajala said. "But the making of it is not so simple."

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