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CO2 – Free Electricity in Switzerland

by Stacie Leone

The Swiss: pioneers of fine chocolate, precision watches and non-CO2 emitting energy sources.  Switzerland, with its soaring mountain ranges, abundant glaciers and high levels of annual rainfall, began using its topography to its advantage as early as the nineteenth century with the building of its first hydropower plant. Hydroelectric energy is a renewable resource, which produces no carbon dioxide emissions, and is hence regarded as environmentally friendly.

Until the beginning of the 1970s, hydropower accounted for as much as 90 percent of the country’s electricity production.  It began to take off towards the end of the nineteenth century, then, between 1945 and 1970 hydropower experienced a major boom during which numerous new power plants were opened in the lowlands together with large-scale storage plants.

When nuclear power came to Switzerland in 1985, the use of hydropower fell to about 60 percent and today accounts for about 57 percent of the country’s electricity production, remaining Switzerland’s most important domestic source of renewable energy. Nuclear accounts for the rest of the country’s electricity production, meaning Switzerland has a nearly CO2-free energy network.

Switzerland is a small country, about the size of New Hampshire and Connecticut combined, comprising15,940 square miles, with a population of just 7.5 million. 
The Swiss Alps are a high mountain range running across the central-south of the country, among which are found countless valleys, many with waterfalls and glaciers. From these the headwaters of several major European rivers such as the Rhine, Rhône, Inn, Aare, and Ticino flow finally into the largest Swiss lakes such as Lake Geneva (Lac Leman), Lake Zürich, Lake Neuchâtel, and Lake Constance.

Today there are 527 hydropower plants in Switzerland that each have a capacity of at least 300 kilowatts, and produce an average of around 35,300 gigawatt hours (GWh) per annum, 47 percent of which is produced in run-of-river power plants, 49 percent in storage power plants and approximately four percent in pumped storage power plants.

Stations using reservoirs - constructed by building huge dams in the mountains - supply over a third of the total power produced. These stations include the Grande Dixence, in canton Valais, whose dam wall is the third highest in the world, at 285 meters (935 feet).
Another quarter comes from run-of-river stations, which exploit the water's natural flow to drive their turbines. Switzerland also has a number of pumped-storage stations, which have a system of paired reservoirs.

The Future of Hydro Power

Hydropower is Switzerland’s oldest and its most important source of renewable energy; and the hydropower market, run by the governmental body “SwissEnergy,” is worth around 2 billion Swiss francs annually. The government’s goal is to increase average production levels by at least 2,400 GWh by 2030, an increase of seven percent over 2006.

There are very few suitable locations available for new large-scale hydropower plants, but it will be possible to generate significant – and in many cases, inexpensive – additional quantities of green power in the future by renovating and efficiently operating existing facilities. The problem is not only that large areas of land are lost under new reservoirs, but the potential environmental effects of large new dams.

Nevertheless, the expansion potential for small-scale hydropower plants (i.e. those with a capacity of up to 10 MW) is around 2,200 GWh p.a. Small hydro (SHP) is the fastest growing energy market in Switzerland after large hydro, according to SwissEnergy.

During the last century Swiss industry was supplied by more than 10,000 SHP plants.  In 1914 the water rights registration office still recorded approx. 7,000 SHP plants of which more than 90 percent were plants below 300kW, consisting of water wheels and micro turbines. Until 1985 approximately 1,000 SHP plants survived, of which about 700 had a capacity below 300kW and about 400 plants with purely mechanical drives remained.

Though small hydro power plants began to dwindle during the second half of the last century, they are now seeing a comeback, with a major initiative being led by SwissEnergy to promote and support the revival of small-hydro. Switzerland’s "Small-scale hydropower plants" program is an integral part of SwissEnergy. Its goal is to cost-effectively utilize the existing expansion potential for small-scale plants with a capacity of up to 10 MW by supporting associated projects.

Other “Clean Energy” Measures

So, how does Switzerland use all of its “clean” electricity?   For one, Switzerland’s railways are about 90 percent electric, the largest scale electric rail network in the world.

Also, because Switzerland aims to reduce it’s CO2 emissions by 10 percent (compared to 1990 levels) within the next decade, it will place a special tax on motor fuels, so it’s no wonder that personal electric vehicles are catching on as an alternative method of transportation.  Commuter rail stations in Switzerland are outfitted with special parking spaces where the two-seater vehicles can be recharged while owners are at work.  The recharging stations are run on solar energy, so the cars are pollution free.

Other measures taken to reduce CO2 emissions include levies placed on heating fuels and tax relief for using biofuels. Switzerland also offers tax breaks and subsidies for homeowners who switch to renewable fuels.

Overall, Switzerland imposes some of the strictest environmental policies in the world.  In 2006, for example, when there was an unusual cold spell and an inordinate amount of energy was used, the Swiss compensated by imposing a nationwide speed limit of 50mph.  Throughout the year, cars stopped at traffic lights, after the first three, are required to switch off their engines.

The Swiss also have some of the strongest recycling laws in the world, with designated “trash police” who actually open household refuse to check for proper recycling.  If caught, violators are subject to stiff penalties.  Also, recycling is free in Switzerland, while there are fees for pickup of other trash.

Further, as pioneers in alternative energy sources, Switzerland is naturally the birthplace of the 2000-watt society, a vision in which each person in the developed world would cut their rate of energy use to an average of no more than 2,000 watts by the year 2050.  Originated by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich at the end of 1998, the program aims to encourage reducing overall energy usage, not only electrical, to the equivalent of 17,520 kilowatt-hours per year per person, without lowering the standard of living.

Two thousand watts is approximately the current world average rate of energy use. This compares to averages of around 6,000 watts in western Europe, 12,000 watts in the United States and closer to 500 watts in developing countries such as India. Switzerland itself, currently using an average of around 5,000 watts, was last a 2000-watt society in the 1960s. With further reductions in the use of fossil fuels, the per person limit would ultimately be no more than 500 watts within 50 to 100 years.

A Leading Example

Switzerland may be one of the richest countries in the world, ranking number 13, but the United States is richer, at number six overall.  Switzerland may have a diverse topography, but so does the United States.

In other words, if Switzerland can generate electricity that is nearly CO2-free, why can’t the U.S?



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