The Swiss are reluctantly seeking a home-grown energy cure

  • The government wants to increase the production of renewable energy
  • The Swiss Alps facilitate the production of hydro and solar energy
  • European energy crisis accelerates progress
  • But concerns about the effect on the landscape mean a compromise

BERN/Grand Dixons, Switzerland, Oct 6 (Reuters) – After evading most of the fuel-fueled increase in inflation that has plagued its neighbors, Switzerland is pressing ahead with plans to bolster its energy security and rein in electricity prices – but reluctantly.

Switzerland’s focus on hydropower, which Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga calls the “backbone” of electricity production, has helped protect the country compared to others from rising oil and gas costs, but it is far from immune.

Sommaruga thinks the Swiss have woken up to the need to phase out fossil fuels due to the European energy crisis since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and because of the dangers of energy rationing in a worst-case scenario this winter.

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It wants to achieve greater energy security by taking advantage of the unique geography of the Alpine Confederation to develop solar energy and expand hydropower – and it is trying to engage local interests that are concerned about landscape and environmental impact.

A successful hub for clean and independent energy supply, under which the government is striving to achieve Energy Strategy 2050It promises to cement Switzerland’s position as a high-end economy at the heart of Europe with a safe haven currency.

“If we can use solar and hydropower together, I think this is really the ‘dream team’ for Swiss energy production,” Sommaruga told Reuters in an interview.

The IF is important: Implementing change is not easy because Switzerland’s direct democracy system means that projects can be stymied at the local level. It only took years to get approval to raise the wall of one of the existing dams, for example.

Last week, Sommaruga had some success. Parliament has passed legislation on the mandatory construction of solar panels in new buildings. But it was so full of caveats that Sommaruga expects about 70% of the buildings to be exempted.

The legislation also facilitates approval of large solar projects in the mountains, which could be eligible for state funding, although it is up to the cantons to approve them.

My heart is bleeding

In the southwestern canton of Valais, Switzerland’s ability to harness energy from its own resources is demonstrated by the imposition of the 285-meter (935-foot) Grande-Dixenes Dam, which contains about 400 million cubic meters of water.

“This is enough to power about 400,000 homes for a year,” Amede Morissier, head of hydropower production at energy company Albek, said ahead of what he expected to be a “very stressful” winter.

“We’re going to store the water in the dams in late winter to make sure we’re not in trouble,” added Morrissier, speaking next to the vast and almost complete Lac de Dix Reservoir that is obscured by the Grand Dixons Dam.

Neighboring glaciers melted during the hot summer, helping to fill the dam’s reservoir, “which is bad news from an environmental standpoint, but for the energy supply, that’s good news,” Morisser said.

Sommaruga said the energy crisis in Europe had made the Swiss “more aware of the need to have more production and more storage in our country. We have to expand renewable energy.”

However, there are still calls for moderation, so as not to disrupt biodiversity or spoil the postcard image of the Swiss Alps.

“My heart bleeds when I think of the PV modules in a nature park,” said lawmaker Stefan Müller-Altermat of the Center Party “De Meite”.

Nils Ebrecht, managing director of the Swiss energy firm SES, wants to pursue solar energy within limits that protect nature. He is concerned that Parliament will neglect biodiversity in its efforts to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.

“The danger lies in throwing the child into the bath water,” he said. But he described last week’s package as “acceptable”.

supply guarantee

To beat the winter, the government is temporarily relaxing water usage rules to allow some hydropower plants to increase their capacity and release gasoline, diesel, heating oil and kerosene from their strategic reserves.

Hydroelectricity It accounts for about 60% of domestic electricity production, but electricity accounts for only a quarter of the total production Swiss energy sourceswith the largest petroleum products.

The upshot is that while Switzerland’s share of renewables – about a quarter of total energy supply – puts it ahead of leading European economies such as Germany and France, it lags behind Norway and Iceland, according to data from Paris. Presentation of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Looking beyond winter, Sommaruga wants to try to keep electricity prices low, but her priority is clear: “The most important thing is to secure supplies.”

The Swiss have so far avoided much of the cost-of-living crisis that their European neighbors have incurred, with inflation at just 3.3% compared to 10.0% in the eurozone.

This is partly due to the energy mix, with gas accounting for only about 15% of total consumption. But Sommaruga stressed that there was “absolutely no certainty” about this winter’s power supply.

Relatively high income and low energy weight in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) — just 5% in the Swiss CPI basket compared to more than 10% in Germany, according to OECD data — also explains the difference.

Another factor is the strong franc, which gives Switzerland some protection against rising import costs, which SNB board member Andrea Mechler described as “very strong”. The Swiss National Bank is on the issue of inflation.

“We get paid to be concerned and to make sure inflation stays under control,” Michler said.

Christian Schaffner, executive director of the Center for Energy Sciences at the Federal Institute of Technology, would like Swiss politicians to show the same enthusiasm in pushing for renewables.

Schaffner, who coordinated the researchers in preparing a Policy Summary On the move towards Swiss energy independence.

In addition to more hydropower, Schaffner would like to increase wind and solar power. Alpine snow reflection could allow duplex PV modules to harvest more energy.

“Photovoltaics and wind energy are two of the cheapest ways to produce electricity in the future, especially if we assume that natural gas prices will remain higher. In this regard, having more photovoltaic cells in the system would lower costs,” he said.

Hydroelectric power adds flexibility, allowing Maurizier to conserve water that the Grand Dixons Dam holds in reserve.

Maurice is also seeking permission to build a new dam down a receding glacier near Zermatt – a project he describes as part of a broader discussion in Switzerland about “landscape protection in exchange for additional green energy”.

“I think this debate, as always in Switzerland, needs compromise on both sides,” he said.

“It is not possible to cover all of the remaining Alps with hydropower projects. That would be too much. But certainly in a few select locations, there is potential. And we need to.”

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Paul Carrell reports. Additional reporting by Cecil Mantovani, Denis Balibos and Arnd Wegmann. Editing by Hugh Lawson

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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