Darkest Days of Winter Have Finland Bracing for Blackouts
In the dead of winter, Finland can be a miserable place. Temperatures often dip below -20C, and in the darkest months of the year, Helsinki gets less than six hours of light a day.
(Bloomberg) — In the dead of winter, Finland can be a miserable place. Temperatures often dip below -20C, and in the darkest months of the year, Helsinki gets less than six hours of light a day.
To fight the elements, Finland has become the most energy-intensive economy in the EU. But with winter approaching, the country is bracing for rolling blackouts, planned in response to Russian energy cuts. Although Russian energy only made up a small fraction of Finland’s total supply, its loss threatens to have a huge impact, and Finns are being forced to choose between bad options.
If the planned outages don’t take place, said Arto Pahkin, a network operations manager at Fingrid Oyj, which oversees the country’s electricity grid, there would a national large-scale disruption and “people could die.”
Finland is at the sharp end of Europe’s energy crisis. In May, Russia stopped selling the country electricity and gas as evident retaliation for its opposition to the war in Ukraine and decision to join NATO. While countries across the region are bracing for a difficult winter, Finland is especially at risk as a loss of energy could expose residents to threatening conditions in a matter of hours.
At the same time, perhaps no country is better prepared to deal with the consequences if the power stays off.
For years, the defense ministry has published booklets about what to do in the event of a power failure, advising people to keep battery-operated radios at home, along with enough food, water and medical supplies to last 72 hours. Even before the war in Ukraine, an estimated third of Finnish citizens had these supplies on hand.
Mervi Pirttikoski-Takala, an accountant who lives in the Helsinki metropolitan area, said she is already cutting back on electricity use by turning off her underfloor heating when it isn’t needed.
“We have added extra carpets on the floors and purchased flashlights,” said the 53-year-old, noting that the cold is “a small trouble” compared to what Ukrainians are going through.
What’s happening now is the culmination of years of planning. In September 2014, officials cut power to 70,000 people in the Arctic town of Rovaniemi to see how an abrupt, large-scale power failures would play out in real life. The exercise was designed to let authorities practice a so-called blackstart, in which the power system is brought back up without any help from imported energy. According to Pahkin, who participated in the activity, it was a wake-up call, prompting authorities to overhaul their approach.
Had that not happened, “we’d be in dire straits,” he said. Training exercises have been regularly scheduled ever since, with the most recent held this September in Helsinki.
While Finland hasn’t experienced a blackout stemming from a national grid failure since 1974, the threat remains present if imports can’t be secured. Unlike neighbors Sweden and Norway, which enjoy plentiful hydro-power reserves, Finland has few domestic energy resources, buys almost all of its fossil energy, and relies on imports to cover shortfalls. Some relief could come in the next few months, however, when the small Nordic country finally brings Europe’s biggest nuclear reactor into regular use after an almost 14-year delay.
Until then, Finns are stocking up on firewood, gas heaters and diesel generators, and taking matters into their own hands by reducing electricity use. In addition to asking people to lower indoor temperatures, take shorter showers and use more public transportation, the government has adopted its own energy-saving initiatives, which include shortening the hours of the parliament’s in-house sauna.
The attitude of Marja Lyhty, a 52-year-old former peacekeeper, captures the blend of resignation and resourcefulness that has come to characterize the Finnish approach. She’s stocked up on food, opting for tortillas and taco fillings over pasta and rice.
“I have a sleeping bag that can keep me warm to -20C,” she added. “I’ll pull that out if I need to.”
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