The Finnish husband-and-wife team behind Q Power argue that large-scale, feasible solutions for clean energy are available – and putting them into practice is a matter of urgency.
“Snow and darkness are fine. Rain and darkness, that’s not so good,” says Ilkka Herlin, chairman and co-founder of renewable energy solution company Q Power, as he surveys the drizzle from a café in the seaside town of Ekenäs in southern Finland. It’s early March, a time when the quaint wooden old town would normally be blanketed in snow, not shrouded in rain. Herlin says we had better get used to this manifestation of climate change in future winters.
This is the view of a pragmatic realist, not the gloomy resignation of a doom-monger. Q Power’s business is based on tangible, effective solutions for putting the brakes on global warming and improving sustainable best practices. It is therefore no surprise that Q Power’s focus on renewable fuels has attracted the attention of Wärtsilä, which has its own vision of a 100% renewable energy future. The two companies confirmed this mutual interest by signing a strategic cooperation agreement to expedite the development and commercialisation of renewable fuels.
Herlin and his wife Saara Kankaanrinta founded Q Power to put their mutual ambitions to improve the environment into practice. Herlin comes from a well-known Finnish industrialist family and is chairman and co-owner of the Cargotec cargo and load-handling solution company. Kankaanrinta won the Global Energy Award in 2019 for her comprehensive work in climate, soil, biodiversity and the Baltic Sea. Before teaming up with Herlin, both professionally and in marriage, she worked at the John Nurminen Foundation, set up to safeguard the heritage of the Baltic.
“I have been interested in energy matters since the energy crisis of the 1970s,” Herlin explains. “I realised that our systems were not sustainable, so I began to look at renewable energy systems. When I finished my studies, I spent more time on environmental work, and decided to concentrate on the situation of the Baltic Sea.”
Ilkka and Saara met when they were both involved in water treatment projects in the St. Petersburg area, across the border from Finland in Russia. They founded the Baltic Sea Action Group, which focuses on parallel Baltic Sea problems, such as agricultural issues, recognising that run-off from farmland in the Baltic region countries could be reduced by increasing the carbon content of the soil.
“We noticed that we were doing carbon sequestration work – removing carbon from the air and storing it in the soil by means of photosynthesis – related to climate change as well as work to improve the condition of the Baltic Sea,” he says. It was a small step from this recognition to the renewable energy business, and to identifying two main priorities: finding alternatives to fossil fuels and sequestering carbon into the soil.
The couple were determined to demonstrate that agriculture was possible without detrimental soil run-off to the Baltic, without depleting biodiversity and without unwanted effects on the environment. This determination was behind the couple’s acquisition of the handsome stone Qvidja manor house, with its beautiful gardens, in Finland’s idyllic southwest archipelago. The need to develop a smart and effective heating source for the stone manor, its outhouses and gardens also underlined the couple’s commitment to speed up the development of renewables as an energy source.
The search for solutions led to the discovery of an innovative and unique biomethanisation process pioneered by Helsinki University professor Erkki Aura, who is now a senior advisor to Q Power. This process, for which Q Power owns the patent, combines hydrogen with CO2 captured from the atmosphere or from industrial processes in a bioreactor to produce synthetic methane. The use of synthetic methane and similar synthetic fuels will contribute significantly to the decarbonisation of energy, transportation, and industry in the future.
“Wärtsilä has understood quite quickly that this process has huge potential,” says Herlin, pointing out that the company has committed to play a leading role in supporting the energy sector’s transformation to 100% renewable energy. This circular solution could also be applied to ship engines, whereby CO2 captured from methane used as fuel could be brought to shore and combined with hydrogen produced by renewable energy sources – thereby producing more methane for more fuel.
Although the circulation process initially generated a lot of attention, it also attracted some scepticism, mostly related to perceived limits on scale. “We have proven that you can scale it up as big as it needs to be – and that it works,” says Herlin. “We have launched a pilot project with the St1 energy and car service company in Vantaa, Finland which has worked very well. In the Finnish town of Salo, we have an agreement for a waste incineration plant starting in 2021 where they will separate the CO2 and we can use that to make methane - that’s another world first.”
With Wärtsilä, Q Power is planning a demonstration project for the Finnish pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai, showing how the CO2 in buildings can be captured and combined with hydrogen produced using solar power.
The search for solutions to environmental challenges is close to Herlin’s heart, but he embarks on it with a keen business acumen. It’s not enough, he says, to try to solve urgent environmental problems without approaching them with a view to the business opportunities that will speed up effective and far-reaching change.
Urgency is also a keyword for Saara Kankaanrinta in her role as chair of the Baltic Sea Action Group (BSAG). Standing on the rugged Baltic shore near Ekenäs and the beautiful archipelago lining much of Finland’s coast, it’s hard to grasp that these waters are threatened by hazardous substances and an imbalance in their basic ecosystem.
“The climate crisis makes all the old problems even more severe,” says Kankaanrinta. “Climate change will have numerous effects on the condition of the Baltic Sea, as well as on its inhabitants. Sea-surface water temperature has already risen. Higher temperatures together with excess nutrients from the land increase eutrophication. Increased rainfall and water flow from land will reduce the salinity of the Baltic Sea. The already vulnerable ecosystem will be even more vulnerable.”
Hope lies in the fact that the necessary courses of action are well known.
“We just have to speed up the work and cross-border cooperation, and tackle the root causes, not just the symptoms,” she says. “We need to act and implement these systems as fast as possible. The climate crisis is acute, and time is running out. All possible cooperation, including the kind being pioneered between Q Power and Wärtsilä, is needed in order to change the energy system.”