Alpine nimbus freezes dreams of Swiss green energy

High up in the Swiss Alps, where even in mid-June there is snow, workers are installing photovoltaic panels all over the top of Europe’s highest dam.

Switzerland has long taken its reputation for clean energy: it is aided by abundant water energy, less than 10 percent of the electricity it produces emits greenhouse gases. Yet today, Switzerland’s complex regulatory process and local objections to the possibilities of the eyes mean new green projects as in the Muttsee reservoir have become an exception.

As a result, one of the richest and most economical societies in the world is in danger of collapsing. Switzerland is also on track to become more dependent on imported energy, as faced with growing risk, it may separate from the EU electricity grid thanks to a increasingly frustrating diplomatic deal with Brussels.

The government is committed to shutting down the country’s three nuclear power plants for the next decade. When that happens, Switzerland will lose a third of its current energy generation, and no one is sure how the shortfall will be compensated.

“The idea of ​​the project was really to test and show what is feasible,” said Christian Heierli, project manager for electric company Axpo at the Muttsee AlpinSolar project.

Axpo hopes the installation, built with 320 tons of material carried by helicopter at 2,500 meters above sea level, will showcase Switzerland’s solar potential.

“There are really only a few large-scale companies.” [renewable] projects in Switzerland, “Heierli said. Obtaining permits to build solar and wind farms was almost impossible, he added.” In addition to the people installing photovoltaic panels on the roofs of their homes, not much else is going on. ”

Bern acknowledges he has a problem. Last year, Switzerland produced only 311kWh of energy per resident from solar and wind energy, according to the Swiss Energy Foundation, a renewable energy think-tank. In comparison, Denmark produced 3027kWh, Germany 2232kWh and the United Kingdom 1304kWh.

Solar panels that are installed in the Muttsee reservoir are often above the cloud line, even in winter © Axpo

The potential for new hydroelectric plants, which account for 58 percent of supply, is small with upgrades to existing structures by only increasing production by marginal quantities, experts warn.

At the same time, Switzerland last month refused long-term negotiations with Brussels on a new framework agreement to codify its black network of bilateral treaties.

As a result, last Thursday, the first of several treaties regulating Swiss connections to the EU energy market fell. Although there is only a remote chance that Switzerland will be cut off from the EU grid, unless a permanent agreement with Brussels has been made, the country risks higher energy costs and uncertain supplies.

It would be particularly difficult since Switzerland’s energy production is seasonal: in the winter months, when rivers freeze, it depends more on energy imports to meet demand.

“We only know how the electricity exchange will work with the EU in five or 10 years,” said Christian Schaffner, director of the ETH Zurich energy science center and former official of the federal energy department. Switzerland. “It’s a big uncertainty.”

The accumulation of domestically produced renewable energy could help. Both the sun and the wind work well in winter, thanks to Swiss geography. At the Axpo Muttsee project, for example, solar panels will produce 50 percent more electricity per square meter than in the valley below. Colder temperatures improve efficiency, snow reflects light back onto the panels and the site is often above the cloud line. Such features are common to many potential sites.

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The country has the potential – at least on the solar side – to become a European leader. But without a more flexible regulatory environment, opportunities for new projects are scarce.

“The regulatory framework needs to be fundamentally adapted to increase the expansion of renewable energy,” said Guido Lichtensteiger, spokesman for Alpiq, one of the largest electricity companies in Switzerland.

Last month, Berne presented a package of proposed legislative changes to try to raise more renewable projects. For many, however, the proposals have only dealt with the problem and have done little to properly address the country’s complex approval process, which is deeply rooted in the highly entrenched Swiss political system.

A typical construction project for a new power plant requires the authorization of Bern’s environmental and energy regulatory bodies, and then also by the government of the canton in which it is located.

Common building permits are also required. As with all constructions in Switzerland, a single individual can oppose them. Legal struggles can last for years and are sometimes fought at great expense until the Supreme Court.

In October, the turbines finally started lighting up the Gotthardpass Windpark, one of the largest renewable projects in Switzerland.  But it took 18 years of negotiations to reach a good deal.
In October, the turbines began lighting the Gotthardpass Windpark, one of the largest renewable projects in Switzerland. But it took 18 years of negotiations to come to terms © Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

In October, the turbines finally started lighting up the Gotthardpass Windpark, one of the largest renewable projects in Switzerland. But it took 18 years of negotiations to reach it.

In the 2017 national referendum to approve the government’s energy targets for 2050, Swiss voters strongly supported the plans for more construction. Berne’s plans envisage building more than 850 wind turbines in the country over the next three decades. Currently, there are only 37.

But so far little has been achieved. Plans for four turbines in Kulmerau-Kirchleerau were recently scrapped after the local village rejected the proposals.

“Rich Switzerland is a stronghold of local opposition that is often described as a federalist tradition,” the Zurich-based NZZ newspaper wrote.

“A lot of people.” [awareness] there isn’t, ”adds ETH’s Schaffner on the difference between principally Swiss support at the national level and the local reality of new construction.

“[It] it’s interesting when you think about it. . . that we built all these dams in the Alps years ago, but now we don’t want to. You probably need to talk to a behavioral scientist to understand why. ”

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