Swiss Popular Vote on the Energy Act, what is important?

by Dr.eng. Ernst Pauli

The Energy Act as the first package of measures for the implementation of the Energy Strategy 2050 should be examined to see whether it contributes to a strategy that focuses on truly forward-looking – on what we want to leave to the next generation. These cannot be leftovers of radioactive waste, plundered oil and gas fields, and money-filled accounts. It must be a sustainable handling with the environment and the resources of the world. Fossil fuels that nature has donated to us should be protected as much as possible, avoiding risky technologies. All this is also a contribution to a more peaceful world. The struggle for oil is avoided once each country produces its own energy as far as possible and regulates its supply of raw materials and energy in equal cooperation. This article attempts to examinate some forward-looking aspects of the energy strategy and to provide illuminating information.

The Grimselsee reservoir and the retaining wall with the Oberaar-Glacier.(picture KWO/Robert Bösch)

The fossil resources are finite

It is an undisputed fact among geologists that oil, gas, coal, and uranium supplies are finite. As early as 1956, the geologist Marion King Hubbert predicted in a scientific publication of the American Petroleum Institute that the yield of conventional oil reached a peak in the USA in 1972 and then went back irretrievably.1 Reality confirms Hubbert’s thesis of peak oil with more than one example. The crude oil production in the United States actually reached its maximum in 1972 and has been shrinking ever since.
Also the interlude of the much cited shale oil production, which brought the production in the USA back to a high level, is short-term and does not fundamentally alter this picture. The oil production in the North Sea, in Alaska, in 33 of the world’s 48 largest oilfields, has already exceeded its peak by the turn of the millennium. The crude oil production rate has not changed significantly since 2005.2 Other large deposits, which could contribute significant amounts and production volumes, have not been found for decades.3
All this is a clear indication to react in time to the limited availability of resources and to search for meaningful alternatives for our entire energy supply, for electricity, heat, mobility and the economy. The Energy Act as the first package of measures for the Energy Strategy 2050, which will be voted by the people on 21 May 2017, makes a meaningful contribution by the prohibition of the construction of new nuclear power plants, the promotion of renewable energies and measures to reduce energy consumption.

The market does not solve the energy problem

The supply of energy must be secured in the long term. It is a classic task of the policy to work out a humane solution of the problem. Unfortunately, this task is left to the “free market”. However, the market governs different from politics.4 Even environmentally friendly and resource-conserving technologies are not used, if they are not available at short notice and promise profits. However, the development of new indicatory technologies is long-term and expensive. The economy does not want to be deterred from operating old nuclear power plants in the pursuit of profit despite known risks. Indeed, it even tries to shift the non-profitable tasks, for example, the decommissioning and the dismantling of nuclear power plants, to the public sector.5 Forward-looking impulses that do not promise a short-term profit will never start out from the market. Therefore, there is a need for an energy strategy from the public sector. Only a strategically planned, long-term development can lead out of the dependency described above. In this context, it is useful initially to promote non-profitable new forms of energy.

Renewable energy is more cost-effective in the long term

The costs of oil and gas will hardly decrease in the long term, but increase significantly because of the emerging scarcity and increasing production costs,6 thus making the energy produced more expensive. However, “The sun and the wind do not generate any invoice.”7 If electricity and even fuel are produced from renewable energies, there are less costs for oil and gas imports. Thus, the costs of renewable energies will be lower than fossil energy generation in the long term. The costs of promoting renewables and the investments to be made are more than compensated by savings in the import of fossil fuels facing the next decades of scarcity.8 If you draw the image of the promotion of renewable energies completely, you must reckon them as an investment in the future.

The problem of storage is solvable.

A continually argued argument against the renewables is that they are only available when the wind is blowing and when the sun is shining, and then possibly in abundance. This is undoubtedly true. However, instead of the doubts about the feasibility of an energy turnaround, you should rather ask for the appropriate technical solutions to this problem. Conventional pumped-storage power stations in Switzerland are already available today, which pump up superfluous electrical energy into high-lying storage tanks and then recover electricity from the stored energy. It must be a strategic goal to further expand these facilities.
The Oberhasli power stations, for example, are pursuing the innovative idea of using the space created by the retreating “Trift”-glacier for a new reservoir.
In the project to increase the level of the Grimsel dam, the Federal Court of Appeals assessed the energy gain by increasing the level of the Grimsel dam higher than the concerns of the environmentalists.9 These are just a few examples for a substantial and rapid expansion of renewable hydropower. Examples of lakes and hydropower plants that have not yet been built in Switzerland for reasons of cost are the projects “Lago Bianco” and “Chlus”.10
New models for power supply must be considered.11 If profit is not the focus, the secondary storage model could be successful. If the sun and wind produce sufficient or too much current electricity, all hydroelectric power plants would be shut down and the pumping operation switched on in storage plants, so that the reservoirs are always filled at their maximums. However, such a model needs an economic concept oriented towards the common good. A free market does not do justice to it. The promotion of large-scale hydropower plants is certainly useful in order to enable economic operation.12

The Energy Strategy 2050

The starting point for the new energy strategy in Switzerland was set with the Federal Council’s decision to phase out nuclear power immediately after the Fukushima disaster. However, with the abolition of electricity production from nuclear energy with roughly the same electricity consumption, a clear discrepancy between supply and demand, which is also referred to as an electricity gap, is emerging from around 2020.13 It is a matter of enormous effort to fill it with renewable energies from Switzerland. The generation of electricity from the new renewable energies as well as from hydropower as storage technology must hence be greatly expanded. The energy strategy provides for reductions in consumption as a safe welcome measure. Together with the increased use of solar, wind energy and hydropower, the energy supply of Switzerland can be secured if the people adopt the Energy Strategy 2050 on 21 May 2017, and things are taken courageously.
In unfortunate confusion, however, Ms. Leuthard left open a backdoor in the past when she categorically stated that electricity imports were still necessary. Somewhat surprising in the sense of the “strategic” submission: The Federal Council already stated in advance that the proposed measures would not achieve the targets envisaged in the new Energy Act14. New measures are planned for the post-2020 period. A Switzerland, which is provided adequately and in an emergency independently with energy and therefore could be an equivalent and independent partner in international cooperation, is not striven for in this strategy. To achieve this goal, the replacement of electricity production by nuclear power plants with the shutdown of the last Swiss nuclear power plant in Leibstadt in 2034 would have to be established. Hesitation is not appropriate here. The 5-year limited subsidy of large hydropower will lead to current support, but not to new long-term investments and projects.
The strong limitation of the subsidy or feed-in remuneration compensatory (KEV) prevents exactly the dynamics of the energy turnaround demand that it needs. The currently subsidised KEV plants only contribute modestly to electrical energy supply. More than 35,000 projects for the production of electricity from renewable energies are on the waiting list. They could deliver about a sixth of Swiss electricity consumption. For a successful conversion of the power supply, the renewable energy carriers must be expanded rapidly in any case to the limit of the real usable potentials.15 Unfortunately, you cannot recognise these dynamics in the present Energy Act.

Electricity storage technology in Switzerland

The current peaks arising with the new renewable sources can be stored by using them to produce hydrogen or methane. The principle has long been known as electrolysis or as a Sabatier process. Hydrogen or methane produced in strong winds and much sun can be effectively stored in the gas pipeline systems and underground hydroelectric power stations already existing in Central Europe. Little is known in the public that the gas stored this way would already suffice as a so-called “seasonal storage” for a few months. While the storage possibilities are already present, large-scale plants for the production of hydrogen or methane from peak current have to be built up first. Interestingly support for these developments comes from the automotive industry, since they contain the fascinating possibility of operating individual transport with renewable energies by driving hydrogen or methane produced by renewable energies. This way, completely new possibilities for an entire renewable energy based energy economy would arise in the transport sector.
With about a dozen smaller demonstration and research projects on this type of electricity storage or energy generation, Switzerland is at the forefront of such technology development. A few projects are to be mentioned in the following. At the Rapperswil University of Applied Sciences, an electrolyser with 25 kW of peak current and water produces hydrogen, which, together with CO2, becomes methane from the air. This can be fed into the existing natural gas network as a synthetic gas, replacing fossil fuels.16 Swiss electricity suppliers, associations of Swiss gas suppliers, universities, and car companies are involved.17 A similar project deals with the refining of biogas in the Zurich sewage treatment plant Werdhölzli Energy CH4, which can be introduced into the gas pipeline system and consumed. Since the beginning of the year, a 1000-hour long-term test has been carried out under real conditions.18
The Aarmatt hybrid plant, which was ceremoniously inaugurated on 30 June 2015, is a small ray of hope for the use of the new renewable energies. In a broad network of universities, cantonal and municipal facilities, as well as associations of the gas industry, just as it is handled in federal Switzerland, a compounding system has been developed which can convert peak energy from solar energy (350 kW) into hydrogen in the electrolyser into the natural gas network.
There is a thermal heat accumulator (11 MWh), a gas boiler (6 MW), and a combined heat and power unit with 1.2 MW electrical power and additional heat output (1.2 MW), all produced as renewable energy. In this case exemplary a compound has been created, which provides a holistic solution for the peak and storage problems of the new renewable energies. There should be a lot more such projects.19 In the approach, all these projects and experiments are well braced. They find promotion and support at cantonal level (CTI), among the energy and gas associations, and in the field of research. What is still lacking, but urgently needed, are large-scale, if necessary also subsidized, projects that can make significant contributions to the conversion of Switzerland’s energy supply based on the small-scale findings in order to get closer to the goal of Switzerland, which is basically energy self-sufficiency.

Energy from waste

The generation of energy from waste has already established itself very early in a pragmatic way in Switzerland. For more than 30 years, with a steady annual increasing rate of 2-3%, this form of production has recently contributed about 5% of Switzerland’s total energy consumption, i.e. the production of electricity, heat, and mobility. The company Kompogas, a subsidiary of Axpo, has more than 20 locations and plants of varying sizes in Switzerland. The “Kompogas” process was developed in Switzerland by a single inventor and brought into operation with the support of the Confederation. In the meantime Axpo has bought the company. The technology has also been adopted abroad and is a good example of the Swiss inventor’s spirit and the economic implementation of ideas in the field of new renewable energies.

Which energy strategy is needed?

The Swiss energy industry, with a strong (promoted) commitment to new renewable energies in other European countries, should make use of its opportunities to become more active in the country itself. The Energy Strategy 2050 in this regard sets the right direction. A rethinking must take place if one assumes that the solution of today’s scarcity, which will increase through the planned nuclear phase-out, is to be solved with the means of Switzerland itself. This can only be solved by means of new large-scale plants and new technologies, which would be appropriate for Switzerland as a high-tech country. The Energy Act shows an approach in the right direction. It is still to wish, that the development be accelerated – especially with the help of the citizens’ commitment.    •

1    Wicks, Frank. Hubbert’s Peak. Mechanical Engineering. March 2014
2    World Oil Yearly Production Charts. Peak Oil Barrel, http://peakoilbarrel.com/world-oil-yearly-production-charts/, Zugriff 24 March 2017
3    Robelius, Frank. Giant Oil Fields – The Highway to Oil-Giant Oil Fields and their Importance for Future Oil Production, Uppsala 2007 (Dissertation Universität Upsalla)
4    Guggenbühl, Hans-Peter. Die Energiewende und wie sie gelingen kann, Zurich 2013
5    Lösungen für die letzten Betriebsjahre der AKW (Solutions for the last years of operation), “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 29 November 2016
6    Die Erdölmultis in der Zwickmühle. Fracking verändert die Kostenstruktur der Energiebranche. (The Oil Mole in the Predicament. Fracking changes cost structure of the energy industry.)  “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” 27 May 2014
7    Alt, Franz. Auf der Sonnenseite. Warum die Energiewende uns zu Gewinnern macht. (On the sunny side. Why the energy turnaround creates winners.) Munich 2013
8    Umweltbundesamt Berlin. (Federal Environment Agency Berlin). Hintergrundpapier, Stromerzeugung aus erneuerbaren Energien – umweltfreundlich und ökonomisch sinnvoll. (Background paper, electricity generation by renewable energies – environmentally friendly and ecologically useful.) ZSW Zentrum für Sonnenenergie- und Wasserstoff-Forschung 2011
9    Geplanter Ausbau des Grimselsees rückt näher. (Planned expansion of the Grimselsee is approaching) “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 6 April 2017 Bundesgerichtsurteil (Sentence of the Federal Court) 1C_79/2016 of 5 April 2017
10     RePower schreibt Projekte ab. (RePower writes off projects) “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 3 April 2014
11    Gunzinger, Anton. Kraftwerk Schweiz, Plädoyer für eine Energiewende mit Zukunft (Power Plant Switzerland, plea for a energy turnaround with future), Basel 2015
12    UREK, Kommission für Umwelt, Raumplanung und Energie des Nationalrates, Beratung des ersten Massnahmenpaketes der Energiestrategie 2050 (13.074), Beschluss über die Förderung der Gross–Wasserkraft, 25 August 2014 (Commission for environment, spatial planning, and energy of the National Council, Consultation of the first package of measures of the Energy Strategy 2050)
13    Prognos AG. Basel, Energieszenarien für die Schweiz bis 2050, im Auftrag des BFE, Zwischenbericht II, (Scenarios for Switzerland up to 2050, on behalf of the BFE, Interim Report II) 18 May 2011
14    Energiestrategie 2050, erläuternder Bericht zur Vernehmlassungs-Vorlage (Energy Strategy 2050, explanatory report of the Consultation Proposal’s draft) of 28 September 2012
15    Energiespiegel Nr. 21 November 2012, Paul Scherrer Institut
16    Power-to-Gas in der Energiestrategie, Vortrag -Stefan Oberholzer an der Empa Dübendorf, -Bundesamt für Energie, 25 Februar 2014 (Power-to-Gas in the energy strategy, lecture by Stefan Oberholzer at the Empa Dübendorf, Federal Office of Energy)
17    Annual Report 2016 Swiss Competence Center for Energy Research Heat and Electricity Storage (SCCER HaE-Storage) at the PSI
18    “Power to Gas”: Direkte Methanisierung von Biogas im Werdhölzli, HSR Expertengespräche, (Direct methanation of bio gas in Werdhölzli) 12 January 2017
19    Regio Energie Solothurn Faktenblatt: Hybridwerk Aarmatt am Schnittpunkt von Wasser-, Strom, Gas- und Fernwärmenetz, www.hybridwerk.ch (Regio Energy Solothurn fact sheet: Hybrid-Plant Aarmatt at the point of intersection of Water-, Current-, Gas-, and District Heat, www.hybridwerk.ch)