The Energy Transition – The example of Switzerland

The energy transition is the move of the global energy sector from fossil-based to zero-carbon. At its heart is the need to reduce energy-related CO2 emissions to limit climate change. The energy transition will be enabled by information technology, smart technology, policy frameworks and market instruments.1 

The transition will be different in each country depending on such factors as geography, local policies and the existing energy landscape. This article is about the energy transition in Switzerland, the country in which I am based.

The Swiss energy system has traditionally been based on nuclear power for the base load and hydroelectric for the additional power required during the daytime. The hydroelectric installations act like giant batteries. At night the excess power generated from nuclear is used to pump water back up the mountain which is then used to generate hydroelectric power during the daytime.

This system has in the last few years been disrupted by two factors. First, in 2011 the federal authorities of Switzerland decided to gradually phase out nuclear power in Switzerland following the Fukushima accident in Japan. Second, the rapid adoption of subsidized renewables in Germany has resulted in a rapid reduction in the grid price of electricity. So much so, that the Swiss hydroelectric installations are no longer economic as their cost of production is above the grid price. Axpo, has been trying to divest its hydroelectric assets, but has failed to find takers.

 The energy transition in Switzerland will not involve replacing large nuclear installations with large renewable installations. Instead, it will involve a transition to smaller scale local energy production. This will involve a fundamental shift in energy management with the use of smart grid technology and storage systems.

 Switzerland’s transition to solar and wind has been slow due to a number of factors. First, there is a lack of state support in promoting solar power. Second, there is a natural reluctance from the Swiss to have their landscapes spoiled by large wind turbines. Projects are often blocked by local authorities. Third, solar installations on residential roofs are not economically attractive given the high cost of battery storage. This problem has been dealt with in other countries by having local mini grids with storage capacity being shared by several households. However, in Switzerland large building projects are rare. One of my friends is currently negotiating in person with the local energy company on how to deal with excess production from his solar panels. Finally, the rollout of smart grid technology has been uneven.

The energy transition is a challenge in Switzerland as it is in many countries. The move from large scale production to smaller scale production not only requires new technologies, it also requires a fundamental change in the manner of managing the supply.

 Mark Kissack, 3rd October 2019

  1. International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena.org)
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