18th and 19th century: Steam engine starts the Industrial Revolution
The first steps of modern society were taken when the first industrial revolution began to gather momentum in Britain in the 18th century. Its prime mover was the coal-fired steam engine. The second industrial revolution started roughly in the 1870s and was driven by two factors: the internal combustion engine and electrification.
Finland was at the forefront of electrification from the very early years. The predecessor of today's ABB was founded by a Finn, Gottfrid Strömberg, as early as 1889, and the devices developed by Strömberg won many international prizes. While still a schoolboy in 1881, Strömberg invented the dynamo, just a few years after Edison had invented the light bulb.
1884: Helsinki gets its first indoor lights via the first power plant
The first private power station to distribute electricity to consumers was established in Helsinki in 1884, lighting four houses on the Esplanade. Already a few years earlier, the Finlayson factories got electric lights. In the first decades, lighting was the key application of electricity. After lighting, the radio and then the refrigerator became common in households. In industry, smaller and more reliable electric motors began to replace steam-powered machines and failure-prone leather straps. Today, industry uses roughly half of Finland's electricity.
1920s: Europe’s largest hydro plant gets built in Imatra
Initially, most electricity grids were site-specific but expanded to be regional in the 1920s. Most of the electricity in the first decades was generated by hydroelectric power. The Imatra hydropower plant, completed in 1929, was the largest in Europe at the time. Hydropower dominated electricity generation until the 1970s.
1930s: More and more Finnish homes get electricity
Electrification proceeded fast between the First and Second World Wars. In the 1930s, almost all urban homes were connected to the electricity grid, while half of the rural households were also electrified.
1960s: Thermal power plants enter the electricity mix
Hydro power started to lose its dominance in the 1960s as Finland started to build thermal power plants that burned coal or oil. The 1960s also saw the rise of combined heat and power (CHP), where a single power plant supplies both electricity and hot water for local district heating networks. The last coal-fired power plant built in Finland was the Meri-Pori power plant finished in 1994, which is now part of the power reserve and not in active use. Today, less than a tenth of Finland's electricity is produced with fossil fuels, and most of that is supplied by combined heat and power plants that also produce district heating.
1970s: First commercial nuclear power plants get built
The turn of nuclear power plants came in the late 1970s. The Loviisa I and II reactors started commercial production in 1977 and 1980, and the Olkiluoto I and II reactors in 1979 and 1982. With nuclear power plants, Finland's electricity production increased rapidly while its emissions fell dramatically. These four reactors produce roughly one quarter of Finnish electricity demand today, and when Olkiluoto 3 starts up, nuclear share increases to 40 %. In the 1970s the project of a century was finally finished, as even the most remote villages in Finland got connected to the electricity grid.
1990s: Wind and solar gets introduced
Even though wind power started growing seriously only in the 2010s, the first wind turbines got erected a couple decades earlier. By the end of the 1990s Finland had 38 megawatts of wind capacity. In 2010, that capacity had increased to 198 megawatts, and by 2020 it had grown to 2,586 megawatts. This was enough to produce almost a tenth of Finland’s electricity demand. First solar panels got installed before 1990s, but solar capacity has started to grow seriously only in the last several years as panels have been getting cheaper. In 2015, Finland had some 10 megawatts of solar capacity, while in 2020 that had grown to almost 300 megawatts. Still, solar produces less than one percent of Finland’s annual electricity demand.
21st Century: Electricity demand keeps on growing
From 2005 to the present day, Finland's annual electricity consumption has remained at around 85 terawatt-hours. The next challenges already at our doorstep include replacing coal-fired combined heat and power plants by 2029 when the law banning coal for energy use comes into effect.
After being rather stable for almost two decades, there is reason to expect electricity demand to grow rapidly in the next few decades. Emissions reductions from transport, chemical industry, and metal processing could double electricity consumption by 2050 compared to today.
Some of the first steps in world’s electricity production
- Electricity is first mentioned in printed literature in Thomas Browne's 1646 book "Pseudodoxia Epidemica." The purpose of the book was to refute common misconceptions and superstitions.
- The concept of solar electricity started as early as 1839 with the discovery of the photoelectric effect, and the first solar cell was manufactured in 1882. It was in the same year that the first coal powered power plant, Thomas Edison's Pearl Street Station, was built.
- The first wind turbine to generate electricity was built as early as 1888. It was nearly 20 meters high, had 144 blades, and powered a 12-kilowatt dynamo in an Ohio backyard in the US. Dozens of hydro plants were also built in the US alone in the 1880s.
- The first gas turbine to generate electricity, General Electric's 3.5 megawatt "Trailblazer," was installed in the United States in 1949.
- The power plants built in the early 20th century had just a couple megawatts of capacity. By the 1970s, we were building powerplants with capacities of 1,000 megawatts.
- The first nuclear reactor to produce electricity to power a light bulb in 1951 was the Experimental Breeder Reactor I, designed and built in the United States.