Current Swiss electricity policy

Security of electricity supply does not come for free

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

Switzerland (like many other countries) is faced with the challenging task of securing its future electricity supply and at the same time doing without non-sustainable energy as far as possible. What the electricity mix of tomorrow should look like must be discussed and reflected upon in all its facets and with all its advantages and disadvantages in expert circles, but also among the population and in politics.
  Some stakes for Switzerlands electricity supply have already been knocked down, other approaches are still open or are only being considered. Although the Swiss electorate approved the ban on new nuclear power plants in 2017, some forces in politics and business are already thinking aloud again about new “third or fourth generation” NPPs, and there are concrete models to be taken seriously. To delve into these would go beyond the scope of this article. The Federal Council, for its part, speaks of a “transitional period” with gas-fired power plants and on 17 February specified its plans. What everyone agrees on: Switzerland still has a long way to go in terms of renewable energies; the electricity supply in winter has to be ensured; the gap after the shutdown of the NPPs has to be filled, and the supply has to be increased to meet the growing demand in the future.

“Secure electricity supply with renewable energies”: Draft bill in the Council of States Commission

In June 2021, the Federal Council submitted its dispatch on the “Federal Act on a Secure Electricity Supply with Renewable Energies” to parliament.1
  The main goal of the draft is to “rapidly and consistently” expand “domestic electricity generation from renewable energies”. To this end, the Energy Act, which we voted on only five years ago, is to be amended again, as is the Electricity Supply Act of 2007, because so far the expansion of renewables has been much more sluggish than we had imagined. And although we are all required to be as economical as possible in our energy consumption, electricity consumption will continue to rise: Because Switzerland’s long-term climate strategy must be adhered to in addition to the security of electricity supply, there is a need for “comprehensive electrification in the transport and heating sectors”, according to the Federal Council in its media release. In addition, there is the increasing demand as a result of further growth in immigration.
  The “Commission for the Environment, Spatial Planning and Energy (UREK)” of the Council of States unanimously approved the bill in January and is now dealing with its extensive and detailed contents (Media release of the UREK-S of 28 January 2022). The session in which the draft will be dealt with in the Council of States (as the first Council) is still open.
  In terms of content, the law is to stipulate the following, among other things:

  • Binding target values for the expansion of hydropower and other renewable energies (target value by 2050: 39 TWh expansion) as well as for the reduction of energy and electricity consumption per capita.
  • Extension of the support instruments until 2035. Feed-in tariffs are replaced by investment contributions.
  • Longer-term security of electricity supply in winter: The Federal Council wants to finance large storage power plants, which retain water in the reservoirs for the winter and thus hold an additional 2 TWh of electricity reserves, with a “winter surcharge”.

Here are some comments and important opinions.

ElCom: Measures of the draft bill are not sufficient

Werner Luginbühl, President of the Swiss Federal Electricity Commission ElCom, warns that the measures contained in the draft bill are not sufficient to guarantee a secure supply of electricity. In order to avert the threat of an electricity shortage in winter, “gas reserve power plants” and efficiency measures (electricity saving) would be needed by 2025 in addition to a storage reserve (hydropower). “Luginbühl therefore hopes that parliament will make the necessary corrections to the Federal Council’s proposal.”2 Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga, head of the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (UVEK), has already taken the first steps.

Expanding hydropower as the backbone of Swiss electricity supply

The Swiss production mix in 2020: “In Switzerland, 58,1 % of electricity is produced from hydropower, 32,9 % from nuclear power, 2,3 % from fossil fuels and just under 6,7 % from new renewable energies”. (Media release of the Swiss Federal Office of Energy of 31 August 2021.)
  In view of these figures, it is obvious that hydropower, as Switzerland’s natural and most productive source of electricity, can and must be used far better in the future – in addition to the expansion of new renewable energies. Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga: “Solar power is important. But hydropower remains the backbone of electricity supply in our country. Especially in winter, when electricity is scarce, the storage lakes provide the necessary security. That is why the Federal Council has also decided on a surcharge for winter electricity. ”3 According to Sommaruga, the Federal Council can introduce this measure by ordinance, i.e. already for the next winter.

Hydropower Round Table – an important step, but not sufficient for the energy transition

In Switzerland, practically every new power plant and every expansion is the subject of objections and are often taken all the way to the Federal Supreme Court. In 2021, Federal Councillor Sommaruga convened a “Hydropower Round Table”, in which the representatives of the federal government and the cantons, as well as some representatives of the electricity industry and environmental associations met. They adopted a “Joint Declaration” with 15 reservoir hydropower projects that are “the most promising in terms of energy and at the same time have the lowest possible impact on biodiversity and the environment”. The 15 power plants would “achieve the additional storage production of 2 TWh”, which are necessary to bypass the impending winter shortage.4 A gratifying success and an exemplary undertaking that the various actors get together and negotiate a compromise that serves the common good.
  However, the “Joint Declaration” has also shortcomings: On the one hand, it only sets guidelines: “This document does neither commit an investor, nor a cantonal licensing authority, nor an environmental organisation, nor the federal government,” says the cantonal councillor Mario Cavigelli, president of the cantonal energy directors, on SRF News.5 On the other hand, if all 15 projects were to be realised, the 2-terawatt hours would be only enough for a start and only one of many steps. As Christoph Brand, CEO of Axpo, said in the same SRF programme, a successful energy transition would require a total of 50 TWh, i.e., 25 times that amount. Why are we not moving forward faster?

Environmental protection yes – but not as a blockade for domestic power supply

Swiss electricity companies are building wind farms in northern Germany rather than in their own country. Christoph Brand, the head of Axpo, explained in a newspaper interview: “You have to imagine this: Axpo’s wind power portfolio in Switzerland consists of just one wind turbine, in Entlebuch.” Every project would be bitterly fought for. “Compromises should always be made by others: The opponents of wind power say expand hydroelectric power. The opponents of hydropower say, build photovoltaics. And when it comes to photovoltaics, there’s the protection of historical monuments. We lack the social consensus that electricity has to come from somewhere and that it’s not possible without compromise.” The energy turnaround is technically possible in Switzerland, says the Axpo CEO, but much faster approval procedures are needed. In France, Axpo could build a wind farm in four years, “in Switzerland such a pace is unthinkable by now.”6
  ElCom president Luginbühl and DETEC head Sommaruga also share this point of view that the procedures should be streamlined. Luginbühl says that “today the Swiss electricity industry invests primarily abroad in wind and photovoltaic plants”, because the “expansion of domestic production is being held back by enormously complicated licensing procedures”. (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 5 November 2021) Federal Councillor Sommaruga also affirms that the lack of investment at domestic level is “not primarily the fault of the electricity companies”. For: “Today it often takes 20 years (!) before a wind or hydroelectric project can be realised. There are various approval procedures, and the project opponents can take each procedure individually to the Federal Court.” Investment security is therefore also lacking. (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 5 February 2022)

Example of a rat race proceeding

On 4 November 2020, the Federal Supreme Court “approved the complaint lodged by two nature conservation organisations in connection with the planned raising of the dam walls of the Grimsel hydroelectric power plant” dismissed the case back to the Bernese cantonal government.7
  Thus, the rat race continues. The case was already before the Federal Supreme Court. In 2010 – ten years before the new Federal Court decision! – Kraftwerke Oberhasli AG (KWO) had submitted an application to the Canton of Bern to “raise the two dams of the Grimsel reservoir, which would provide additional storage of 240 gigawatt hours of energy” [i.e., one-eighth of the 2 TWh needed for the winter reserves! – approval by the Bernese Grand Council (Parliament) – cancellation of approval by the Cantonal Administrative Court on appeal by several nature conservation organisations – Approval of the KWO’s appeal by the Federal Court (2017) and referral back to the Administrative Court – dismissal of the complaints of the nature conservation organisations by the Administrative Court (in accordance with the order of the Federal Supreme Court) – current Federal Supreme Court ruling of 2020: referral back to the Bernese cantonal government (i.e. to the lowest instance) – and onwards in the rat race.
  An acceleration of the proceedings would be in all our interests if we want to continue to have running computers and charged e-cars ...

Giving greater weight to security of supply instead of conservation of nature

Although Sommaruga stated in the interview that the Federal Council wants to concentrate the procedures into a single appeal procedure and thus speed them up considerably, there is not a word about this in the draft of the law “on the secure supply of electricity with renewable energies”. Is the Federal Council afraid of the domestic political dispute?
  The SP Federal Councillor is in two minds: as energy minister, she has to promote the expansion of renewable energies; as environment minister, she asserts: “No one wants to cut back on nature conservation” The expansion of hydroelectric and wind power plants doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of the environment. Early negotiations between the electricity industry and environmental associations are needed, says Sommaruga, adding: “And the willingness of all parties to deviate from the maximum demand once in a while.”8
  But as we have seen, that isn’t enough. Is this the reason why the draft has been in the Council of States Commission since last June – because parliamentarians from the Green Party up to the SVP are fighting for a more investment-friendly procedure? The commission is keeping a low profile: it will “only inform about its decisions after the conclusion of its deliberations,” so the announcement after its last meeting on 28 January. It is currently leaked out that corresponding motions have been submitted by the conservative side. “Without compromising on nature conservation, the expansion of renewable energies wouldn’t be possible”, so the justification. The WWF, for its part, commissioned a survey: According to this, around 60 per cent of those surveyed do not want any new hydroelectric power plants in nature reserves.9 Most of us would agree – but from where do we get the electricity for our electrical and electronic devices?

Longer-term security of supply with nuclear power plants?

On 17 February the Federal Council presented the next challenge: In accordance with ElCom’s recommendation, it is planning – in addition to the reserves of hydropower plants by emergency decree – “the staggered construction of two to three gas-fired power plants with a total capacity of up to 1000 megawatts (MW).” Cost: 700 to 900 million francs. The gas-fired power plants “may only be used in exceptional situations when the electricity market is temporarily unable to meet demand,” according to the Federal Council.10 This, of course, requires a law passed by parliament, with an optional referendum. Wouldn’t it be better to raise or build the dams on the Grimsel and elsewhere? Then our gas imports would be reduced and the environmental impact would be lessened – and it would be cheaper.
  Recently, the question has also been raised as to whether the construction of nuclear power plants should be considered again in the longer term. On 12 February 2022, the delegates of the FDP Switzerland approved a resolution on the security of electricity supply, which should make the construction of new NPPs possible again under strict conditions. With 247 yes to 9 no votes and 4 abstentions, the delegates adopted the following resolution: “There must be no legal technology bans on the expansion and replacement of existing domestic production plants in order to guarantee a stable energy mix for future generations. Therefore, the legal conditions must be created so that in the long term and if necessary, a new generation of nuclear power technology could also contribute to the security of supply, provided that safety can be guaranteed at all times.”11
  Thus, new ways are opening up, which are already being pursued by current research. There is no harm in pursuing such approaches.  •

1 Federal Council media release of 18 June 2021; Federal Council Dispatch of 18 June 2021 on the Federal Act on a Secure Electricity Supply with Renewable Energies. Bundesblatt BBl 2021, p. 1666f
2 Netzseitige Massnahmen für die Sicherstellung der kurz- und mittelfristigen Versorgungssicherheit und der Netzstabilität. Report for the attention of UVEK/Federal Council of 13 October 2021; Vonplon, David. “Elcom-Präsident: Der Umweltschutz steht einer sicheren Energieversorgung im Weg” (Elcom President: Environmental protection stands in the way of a secure energy supply). In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 5 November 2021
3 Vonplon, David; Forster, Christof. “Sommaruga zur Energiewende: ‘Niemand will einen Kahlschlag beim Naturschutz’” (Sommaruga on the energy turnaround: “No one wants a clear cut in nature conservation”). Interview in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 5 February 2022
4 Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications DETEC. “Gemeinsame Erklärung des Runden Tisches Wasserkraft” (Joint Declaration of the Round Table on Hydropower), of 13 December 2021.
5 Burkhardt, Philipp. “Runder Tisch Wasserkraft. 15 Wasserkraftwerke sollen realisiert werden” (Hydropower Round Table. 15 hydropower plants to be realised), SRF News, of 13 December 2021
6 Häne, Stefan; Läubli, Martin. Interview with Axpo CEO. “Was ist schlimmer: Der Klimawandel oder ein neuer Stausee?” (Which is worse: climate change or a new reservoir?). In: Tages-Anzeiger, of 13 July 2021
7 Vonplon, David; Forster, Christof. “Sommaruga zur Energiewende: ‘Niemand will einen Kahlschlag beim Naturschutz’” (Sommaruga on the energy turnaround: “No one wants a clear cut in nature conservation”). Interview in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 5 February 2022
8 Judgment of 4 November 2020 (1C 356/2019). Grimsel reservoir expansion: appeal by nature conservation organisations approved. Media release of the Federal Supreme Court
9 Walser, Charlotte. “Umfrage zu Naturschutz – Die Mehrheit will keine Wasserkraftwerke in Schutzgebieten” (Survey on nature conservation – Majority does not want hydropower plants in protected areas). In: Tages-Anzeiger, of 18 February 2022.
10 “Versorgungssicherheit: Bundesrat richtet ab dem nächsten Winter eine Wasserkraftreserve ein und plant Reserve-Kraftwerke” (Security of supply: Federal Council establishes hydropower reserve from next winter and plans reserve power plants. Federal Council media release), of 17 February 2022.
11 “Delegiertenversammlung. FDP sagt ja zu neuen AKW – unter gewissen Voraussetzungen”. (Assembly of Delegates. FDP says yes to new nuclear power plants – under certain conditions). SRF News of 12 February 2022

Cooperation with neighbouring countries possible even without an electricity agreement with the EU

mw. According to Federal Councillor Sommaruga, an electricity agreement would certainly facilitate cooperation with the EU, but: “We would have to expand electricity production in our own country, however, even with an agreement.“ A welcome side effect of the termination of negotiations on the framework agreement: This means that the liberalisation (euphemistically “opening”) of the electricity market sought by the Federal Council is not urgent and will presumably be postponed by parliament: “The opening of the market is a prerequisite for an electricity agreement with the EU. But such an agreement will not come quickly, even if it remains our goal.”1
  Axpo CEO Christoph Brand on the question of whether Switzerland would be “cut off from the European electricity market” after the negotiations with Brussels were broken off: “There is agreement at the expert level that it would make no sense to discriminate against Switzerland. When there was a voltage drop in north-western Europe in January and there was a danger of a blackout, Switzerland helped greatly to stabilise the European electricity grid. This shows the importance of Switzerland.”2

“If we have a problem, then our neighbouring countries quickly have a problem too”

Switzerland is not alone in its concern about protection against future power outages. On 1 December 2021, the Benelux countries, Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland signed a memorandum of understanding at a ministerial meeting to take precautions against an electricity crisis. This “paves the way for further cooperation [...] and for the development of solidarity measures that can be deployed regionally in the event of a crisis»” (Federal Council media release of 1 December 2021).
  Although the declaration is not legally binding, “it is nevertheless valuable,” says Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga on SRF News. “It is important that we take a very specific look at what we can do together to prevent such a power crisis from happening in our region in the first place.” And if a power crisis did occur, the procedures would be defined in advance. The agreement was “a political declaration of will, we want to work together here, because Switzerland is in the middle of Europe. If we have a problem, then our neighbouring countries will quickly have a problem as well.3 (emphasis mw)
  ElCom, which together with the national network company “Swissgrid” is responsible for ensuring stable grid operation in order to optimise electricity imports, has a similar opinion: “In terms of interconnected operation, Switzerland is the most intermeshed country in continental Europe, both cross-border and nationally. The installed transmission capacity at the Swiss borders exceeds Switzerland’s demand by a factor of two to three. Therefore, a lot of import is potentially possible. However, the high degree of intermeshing requires good coordination between the network operators.”4 Our authorities have to ensure this good coordination, for example through the memorandum of understanding mentioned above.

1 Vonplon, David; Forster, Christof. “Sommaruga zur Energiewende: ‘Niemand will einen Kahlschlag beim Naturschutz’” (Sommaruga on the energy turnaround: “No one wants a clear cut in nature conservation”). Interview in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 5 February 2022
2 Häne, Stefan; Läubli, Martin. Interview with Axpo CEO. “Was ist schlimmer: Der Klimawandel oder ein neuer Stausee?” (Which is worse: climate change or a new reservoir?) In: Tages-Anzeiger, of 13 July 2021
3 Gasser, Tobias. “Stromknappheit ab 2025. Hilfe bei Stromausfällen – auch ohne Stromabkommen mit der EU” (Electricity shortages from 2025. Help in the event of power cuts – even without an electricity agreement with the EU). SRF News of 2 December 2021
4 Grid-side measures for ensuring short- and medium-term security of supply and grid stability. Report for the attention of UVEK/Federal Council of 13 October 2021;

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