Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A Finnish company is experimenting with using horse manure as fuel for biomass energy production.
Finland is currently experimenting with a radical new fuel source—horse poop. Right now, Finnish energy company Fortum is conducting trials using horse manure and wood-chip bedding as fuel for biomass energy production. According to the company, using horses as a fuel source is a concept that has real legs. The manure and bedding of just three horses can provide heat and light for a single-family home for a full year. Bear in mind that we’re talking about homes in Finland here, where a cool climate means heating systems are used more intensively than the European average. This means that many horse-loving countries are unwittingly sitting on a big, stinking pile of untapped green energy, just waiting to be exploited.
The process, still in development, works like this. Fortum provides stables with horse bedding made out of wood shavings, which are themselves a waste products of Finland’s large timber industry. The horses poop in their stalls and Fortum returns to gather the soiled bedding, spreading it briefly in a field until it retains a uniform level of moisture throughout. Then the manure is taken to a biomass power plant (Finland currently has six) where it is mixed with the wood shavings that are the plant’s normal fuel source.
So far, the experiment has proved successful, albeit on a modest scale. Fortum has tested in one plant only, with the manure forming just 10 percent of the wood-shaving mix used for burning. In the autumn, the company hopes to test again with the manure proportion raised to 20 percent.
If rolled out on a larger scale, Fortum’s experiments could end up biting a small but healthy chunk out of Finland’s fossil fuel needs. According to the company, the country has 70,000 horses. That’s enough to provide heat and electricity for up to 23,000 homes. Since the process involves pre-existing waste products, it also releases no more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than would have been emitted anyway as the manure and shavings biodegraded.
The potential for countries with more horses is even greater. Finland’s trans-Baltic neighbors Sweden and Poland have 360,000 and 300,000 horses apiece, Fortum says. Both also have the large timber industries necessary to provide a handy supply of wood-shaving bedding. If these three countries together rolled out the technique to its full capacity, they could fuel up to 243,000 homes.
Given the millions of homes in Finland, Sweden, and Poland, that’s still a tiny fraction of the whole. Indeed, the plan’s advantage is more that it finds a productive way of getting rid of a material that’s about to become a serious waste problem. Next year, Finland is banning the disposal of manure in landfill sites, along with many other organic, biodegradable materials. This means that stables risk being stuck with a pile of ordure they can’t shift. They could still give their manure to farmers to use as fertilizer—except that, in many cases, also isn’t possible. Flat fields are still fair game for muck-spreaders, but the E.U. bans the strewing of horse manure on any sloping site, as a sensible precaution against equine feces leeching into the water system. This means that Finland’s manure doesn’t have many places to go, making the manure biomass plan a double win. As Fortum’s Chief Technology Officer Heli Antila puts it:
We are looking as a circular economy here. The bedding material we use is already waste, as is the manure, so it's really a question of how you use that manure that's being produced anyway. The manure may release its carbon faster [when burnt], but it does not add to the carbon emissions it would make as it broke down.
The level of pragmatic optimism on show in the plan is certainly heartening. The Finns may have a melancholic reputation, but right now they’re clearly thinking less about the poop in their life, and more about the life in their poop.