Visionary realist

Mika Anttonen, a billionaire who made his fortune by refining oil, spends a lot of time and money in search of alternative energy solutions.
Mika Anttonen. Photographer: Aleksi Poutanen.

Red and yellow, the brand colours of St1, repeat everywhere at the company’s head office in the Pitäjänmäki district of Helsinki. The colours are also prominent in a drawing that depicts the company’s strategy. It shows oil barrels, an oil refinery and tanker trucks, but also bold visions of renewable energy innovation, waste utilisation, geothermal heat collection, carbon sinks – with the values of the Nordic welfare state standing behind all of this.

“We make our money from fossil fuels, but invest in renewable energy solutions,” says the company’s founder and Chairman Mika Anttonen.

Anttonen has a Master’s degree in engineering, and he started his career working in crude oil trading at Neste Corporation.

Anttonen made his fortune, which now sees him ranked as one of Finland’s and even the world’s richest people, in the filling station and oil refining businesses. His company started from almost scratch to become one of the biggest players in the Nordic energy sector.

The founder now focuses on corporate strategy and innovation in particular; dressed in jeans and a sweater, he speaks a lot and with enthusiasm. Words like responsibility and society are repeated often.

“I is a bad pronoun. We is much better,” he sums up. The following presents his six theses regarding energy and climate issues.

Ladies first

Anttonen envisions a Finland and a prosperous Europe that are small, although operationally effective – and hence responsible – actors. The big picture is global.

He emphasises that raising women’s level of education is the most important strategic goal, as it reduces population growth. The more the population grows, the more mouths there are to feed
– adding to the strain on our shared planet. Food production consumes energy in every stage of the process, from the field to to the kitchen table.

“Finnish education is our biggest export advantage. Providing girls and women in developing nations with a better education would be the most significant climate action,” Anttonen says.

Affordable also to the poor

Globalisation challenges us to consider solutions, which may not, in the short term, comply with Finland’s current policies. Anttonen says Finnish debate is often elitist.

He raises electric cars as an example. He says the vast majority of the population – in Finland, too – will not be able to afford them. The environmental benefit calculations of electric cars are based on the assumption that the electricity they consume is clean, which is often not the case. Furthermore, the scale is wrong.

“It’s very marginal with respect to the climate debate. The majority of people all over the world always buy used cars.”

Anttonen calculates that the use of electric cars would, at most, lead to a small reduction in the growth of oil consumption, but not in overall consumption.

Consumption must fall

Anttonen thinks it’s obvious that the way of life we prosperous Westerners have adopted cannot go on. He says short flights should be banned on routes that are also covered by a rail connection. This would mean an end to flying from Paris to Brussels, for example. Cars could also be built in a way that prevents them from being driven any faster than speed limits allow.

There are many ways to reduce oil consumption, but the most important one is societal regulation, i.e. legislation. Anttonen advocates restrictions to the refining of crude oil, even though he himself is at the very heart of the business.

“We’d have to come up with substitutes if restrictions were placed on fossil fuel use. Change is not progressing fast enough through reliance on alternative methods like emissions trading.”

Bioenergy and solar power alone are not enough

St1 has been investing in the refining of alternative energy forms for years already. Among other things, it uses household biowaste and food industry overflows as raw material for bioethanol. Next, it will start using sawdust. But even this is not enough.

“We’d have to scour the whole world if we wanted to collect enough biowaste to solve the fuel demand problem. The collection and use of Chinese frying grease has already been tested, but it’s not very efficient economically.”

Anttonen says that solar power is clean, but large-scale storage remains an unsolved problem. The greatest demand for electricity exists in cold and dark places, meaning that a kilowatt hour would be much too expensive even if storage and transmission could be worked out.

Let’s harvest the earth’s heat

One of Mika Anttonen’s wilder experiments is currently ongoing in Otaniemi. The idea of this geothermal heat collection project is to harvest clean thermal energy from the depths of the earth.

Two holes seven kilometres deep will be drilled into the earth’s crust. Water will be pumped in through one. It will be heated geothermally and then, via the other hole, rise to the surface where the heat is collected and fed into the district heating network.

“The project has run into many difficulties; drilling has been harder than we expected, for example. One hole has now reached a depth of 5.7 kilometres, the other 3.3 kilometres. We’ll start pumping water in through the other hole this spring, and then we’ll see how the water behaves,” he says.

Anttonen considers the collection of heat bound in the earth as the most sensible form of thermal energy.

“Why burn anything to source heat, when the earth is full of thermal energy?”

How about building carbon sinks in Africa?

His most exciting vision is only getting started, however. Anttonen’s idea is to grow forests to serve as carbon sinks by binding atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

Morocco was selected to host the trial area, and Anttonen intends to plant a 500-hectare forest on disused land there. Water for irrigation will be collected through solar powered seawater desalination – but the water will first benefit locals in the form of drinking water, with only used water going towards the irrigation of the forest.

And what will St1 get out of all this?

“That the impact of a carbon sink like this counts towards our obligations is enough for us. The carbon dioxide balance can be measured with precision using state-of-the-art technology developed by the Finnish Meteorological Institute.”

Mika Anttonen wants to demonstrate in practice that the system works, and then turn it into a business. And all other benefits will flow to local people on the continent that is set to suffer the greatest ill effects of climate change.

  • Mika Anttonen (b. 1966) is a Finnish energy sector entrepreneur. He relinquished his operative duties a decade ago and now serves as St1 Corporation’s principal owner and the Chair of the Board of Directors.
  • Started his career as a crude oil trader with Neste, where he eventually ascended to the head of the trading function. Anttonen established his own firm in 1996 and acquired the St1 chain in 2000. He later also purchased the Esso and Shell filling stations in Finland.
  • One of four Finnish people with estimated assets exceeding one billion euro. Ranked 1,468th on the Forbes global billionaire list.
  • Graduated with a Master’s degree in energy technology engineering from the Helsinki University of Technology in 1992. Named Alumnus of the Year by Aalto University’s School of Engineering in 2016.   
  • Married with three children. Born in Helsinki, spent his school years in Porvoo and has since returned to the capital.
  • Spends a million euro each year to support ice hockey activities for children of limited means.

Text: Leeni Peltonen. Photo: Aleksi Poutanen.

This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 22 (issuu.com), April 2018.

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