Who has got us into this energy mess?

by Dr. iur. Marianne Wüthrich

Anyone who tuned in to Swiss radio news or the SRF daytime news on the evening of 29 June was nose-dived into the harsh laws of reality: There was talk of a gas and electricity shortage that could arrive in Switzerland as early as next winter, and a corresponding federal emergency plan was presented. The Federal Council had invited the public to a media conference1 in the afternoon, at which DETEC head Simonetta Sommaruga and EAER head Guy Parmelin informed the public about the latest state of affairs and their view of things.2 In this context, we have to disentangle what the facts are, who caused them and to what extent they have something to do with the Ukraine war, as was claimed on various occasions at the conference and in the media.

On 21 May 2017, 58 % of the electorate voted “yes” to the “Energy Strategy 2050”. In the voting booklet, the Federal Council had advertised for a “yes” vote with the most beautiful of shouts: “With the first package of the Energy Strategy 2050, Switzerland can reduce energy consumption, reduce dependence on imported fossil energies and strengthen domestic renewable energies. This means that investments remain in Switzerland and do not flow abroad. The proposal ensures a secure and clean energy supply. It also leads to a gradual phase-out of nuclear energy.” Who would want to say “no” to such an enticing prospect for the future? Today, five years later, we have to admit: None of this has come to pass.

Reduce energy consumption?

Recently we could read in the daily press: “Switzerland will need much more electricity in the next thirty years than was assumed in the Energy Strategy 2050”. (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 31 May 2022) It is indeed good for the environment that more and more people are switching to electric cars – but that means more electricity demand instead of petrol. Moreover, the continuing increase in immigration to our densely populated country cancels out any savings: More people need more energy. It had been known long before 24 February 2022 that it would soon no longer be possible to meet Switzerland’s growing energy needs. The Ukraine crisis has come at just the right time for some people to divert attention from the inaccurate claims made before the 2017 referendum.

“Global energy crisis”:
Are the Russians to blame?

Federal Councillor Sommaruga said in an interview after the media conference: “We have a war in Europe. We see that Russia has now partly curbed gas exports. This means that the whole of Europe is in an energy crisis. Switzerland is not an island; we are part of it. [...] In recent weeks, the situation has worsened. Because Russia has now also partly tightened the screw again on Germany – and that is a very important country for Swiss gas supplies.”3 
    For heaven’s sake, who has got us into this mess? Putin did not invent the unspeakable sanctions. We Europeans, Switzerland included, walked right into them instead of refusing to obey the command from Washington. The Russians, for their part, have always supplied us with as much oil and gas as we ordered and paid for, even during the Cold War. But after we have bullied and marginalised Russia and its citizens (not only billionaires!) to the hilt and put its world cultural possessions on the index – who is surprised that the Russians are looking for other customers?

Gas supply security:
Active engagement of the gas industry and North-South transit

About 15 % of Switzerland’s energy needs are covered by natural gas. Switzerland imports 43 % of its gas from Russia, 22 % from Norway and 19 % from the EU, the rest from other countries (gazenergie.ch). According to the Federal Council’s media release of 29 June 2022: “Switzerland has no gas storage facilities of its own and is therefore completely dependent on imports. Up to three quarters of gas deliveries to Switzerland are made via Germany. Switzerland would therefore also be affected by gas shortages in the EU and especially in Germany. If the storage facilities cannot be filled according to plans, a shortage cannot be ruled out in the coming winter.”4 
    What is the Federal Council doing about a possible gas shortage? So far it has prompted the gas industry to set up a “Winter Supply Task Force 2022/2023”. This task force presented its concept for the creation of a winter gas reserve to the Federal Council on 29 June. This includes, among other things, “the establishment of a physical gas reserve in gas storage facilities in neighbouring countries. This should cover 15 % (around 6 TWh) of Switzerland’s annual gas consumption of around 35 TWh.” (Federal Council media release of 29 June 2022) Here you can also read that we actually consume much more gas in winter, namely 30 TWh, and only 5 TWh in summer!
    Switzerland may not have its own fossil fuels, but its location as a hub in Europe also brings advantages: The north-south transit across the Alps not only gives us air-polluting queues of cars and lorries, but is also of great importance for the flow of electricity and gas from our neighbours. The transit gas pipeline brings gas from Germany to Wallbach in Aargau and from France to Rodersdorf in Solothurn, where it is distributed through the national transport pipelines. Some of it flows from the Valais to Italy, but gas can also flow in the opposite direction from the south to Germany, for example from North Africa. Around 90 % of the volume that flows through the transit gas pipeline is destined for transit, and around 10 % for Switzerland. With the transit gas pipeline, Switzerland therefore has a pawn in its hand for bad times, according to the “Tages-Anzeiger” of 3 July 2022.5
    One would think that in good times the Federal Council would have used this pawn and made provisions. It is surprising how hesitant the executive remains in today’s uncertain situation.

Gas supply: two urgent
duties of the Federal Council

Firstly, supply agreements with neighbouring countries. The association of the Swiss gas industry VSG says: “The critical point remains that the procured gas actually reaches Switzerland. It is imperative that the Federal Council continue its efforts to obtain corresponding commitments from neighbouring countries.”6
    And if our neighbouring countries themselves run out of gas – will they continue to supply us? “There is no guarantee of that,” said Simonetta Sommaruga at the media conference on 29 June. That is why written agreements – so-called “solidarity agreements” – are all the more urgent. There is an international treaty with France, but there are always serious power shortages because nuclear reactors are shut down for safety reasons. In view of the fact that, according to Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin, ElCom President Werner Luginbühl and other energy experts at the media conference, a gas and/or electricity shortage could occur as early as next winter, the Federal Council is taking a surprisingly relaxed approach to the matter. According to its media release of 29 June, talks with Germany are “ongoing”. At the WEF in May, Sommaruga and Parmelin “agreed with the German Minister of Economics, Robert Habeck, to conclude an agreement to this effect”. A first round of negotiations had taken place in June 2022. At this snail’s pace, will there be enough time until autumn?
    Secondly, did you know that Switzerland has no gas storage facilities at home? Reserves abroad – even if we have already paid for them! – are a highly unreliable facility in a general shortage, as we learned in the Corona crisis. This is why the Federal Council must finally provide for gas storage facilities at home, according to the Swiss Gas Association: “The VSG also welcomes the fact that the Federal Government wants to support efforts to build gas storage capacities in Switzerland. Corresponding projects have so far failed due to economic viability and a lack of support from the authorities.” (VSG media release of 29 June 2022) However, Federal Councillor Sommaruga does not distinguish herself with any particular determination or haste on this point either: Her department, together with the Department of Economic Affairs, is “examining [...] how the development of gas storage capacities in Switzerland can be promoted and will inform the Federal Council of the status of the examination work by the end of August 2022” (Federal Council media release of 29 June 2022). It will probably be several winters before the groundbreaking ceremony.

Security of electricity supply:
Promote hydropower instead of putting the brakes on it

The fact that the expansion of renewable energies in Switzerland is making only very slow progress has nothing to do with the war in Ukraine. Current Concerns has repeatedly pointed out that, in addition to the “new renewables”, Switzerland’s strongest energy source, hydropower, could supply much more electricity in the future than it does today if all political forces wanted it.7
    Federal Councillor Sommaruga in the media conference: “The 15 new reservoir projects that were planned two years ago in cooperation with associations have as their goal a secure supply of electricity for Switzerland.” Now everyone must work together: ElCom, cantons, parties and the Federal Council.8 
    In fact, the main obstacle is the rampant objections to any increase in the height of a dam – even from environmental protection associations, which agreed to the 15 projects mentioned at the meeting with Ms Sommaruga! Now that an electricity shortage could be approaching, according to a survey 67% of respondents are “in favour of significant cuts in environmental protection in order to increase the production of renewable energy”. 65 % are in favour of building reservoirs in areas where there used to be glaciers. 70 % want a streamlining of the right of appeal in order to accelerate the expansion.9 In this sense, Federal Councillor Sommaruga has for some time been proposing a single appeal procedure per construction project, instead of each association being able to separately take its objection to each individual construction stage all the way to the Federal Supreme Court, which sometimes leads to delays lasting decades (!). This is where parliament and the electorate need to drive a stake in the ground.

What can we citizens contribute to the prosperous
development of our country?

On a positive note, the lack of an electricity agreement between Switzerland and Brussels was not mentioned once at the media conference or in the numerous announcements made in connection with it. Apparently, it was clear to everyone: when it comes to the sausage, or rather the “sprit” (petrol), the neighbouring countries solve their mutual problems bilaterally, as they have done since time immemorial.
    At the media conference, Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin promoted energy saving: It is becoming increasingly likely that there will be a bottleneck in winter. Because several French nuclear power plants are currently shut down, a shortage of electricity cannot be ruled out. Although we have enough energy today, the Federal Council wants to sensitise the population. For example, “empty gymnasiums [...] should not be heated”. If the appeals for savings were not enough, a quota system for the gas supply (for large consumers) would have to be considered. During the question-and-answer session with the media representatives, some unintentionally funny statements were made: “Do we have to lower the thermostat or is that just a recommendation?” a journalist wanted to know. It is a recommendation, Parmelin replied, adding: He does not have a gas heating system himself, but it would certainly not be wrong to save there and reduce the temperature a bit.
    By the way, the Federal Government’s emergency plan is pretty steep! The last stage after the quotas for large consumers (including, for example, the SBB or the Post Office) is cyclical power cuts (8 hours on and 4 hours off, or 4 – 4 – 4).10 That would really shake up Switzerland as a business location, including us workers and consumers. It would be much wiser if the Federal Government did its domestic and foreign policy homework – if possible, before we are faced with a shortage.
    Conclusion: As far as sensible ways to save energy are concerned, we still have many “empty gyms” in our resource-wasting society where we can save energy before we have to freeze in our homes. But for a prosperous future of our country – and the other European peoples – it is also important that we citizens speak out against the brutal destruction of relations with Russia and its citizens by our governments. Not just so that we can get oil and gas again! We leave the closing words to Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry: “We note with regret that Switzerland’s neutral status is beginning to show cracks and that this development is continuing. [...] Regrettably, Bern’s current assessments and approaches to settling the conflict in Ukraine cannot in any way be described as neutral or well-considered. Of course, this aspect will play a role in the dialogue with Bern, both in terms of the bilateral and international agenda for Russia.”11 A reminder to us Swiss! •

1“Drohende Energie-Krise. Sommaruga: Eine Gas-Mangellage würde uns hart treffen” (Looming energy crisis. Sommaruga: A gas shortage would hit us hard). SRF News. Liveticker for the Federal Council media conference on 29 June 2022
2DETEC: Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications. EAER: Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research.
3Rhyn, Larissa. “Energieknappheit. Frau Sommaruga, müssen wir bald mit einem Energie-Alarm rechnen?” (Energy shortage. Ms Sommaruga, should we expect an energy alert soon?) Interview on SRF Tagesschau of 29 June 2022
4“Energie: Bundesrat und Branche stärken Gas-Beschaffung und bereiten sich auf mögliche Mangellagen vor.” (Energy: Federal Council and industry strengthen gas procurement and prepare for possible shortages). Federal Council media release of 29 June 2022
5Felber-Eisele, Philipp; Häne, Stefan. “Energieversorgung in Europa. Schweizer Gasleitung wird zum politischen Pfand” (Energy supply in Europe. Swiss gas pipeline becomes a political pawn). In Tages-Anzeiger of 3 July 2022
6Association of the Swiss Gas Industry VSG. “Gaswirtschaft sichert Winterversorgung 2022/23 weiter ab” (Gas industry further secures winter supply 2022/23). Media release of 29 June 2022
7See for example “Current Swiss electricity policy. Electricity supply security does not come for free.” In: Current Concerns of 1 March 2022
8“Impending energy crisis. Sommaruga: ‘A gas shortage would hit us hard’”. SRF News. Liveticker for the media conference of 29 June 2022.
9Forster, Christof. “Energy transition: Majority of the population in favour of significant cuts in environmental protection and leaner procedures, according to survey”. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 31 May 2022.
10See www.ostral.ch. OSTRAL is the “Organisation for Electricity Supply in Extraordinary Situations”, set up by the “Association of Swiss Electricity Companies (VSE)”, which would implement the electricity emergency plan on behalf of the Federal Council.
11“Russia wants to protect Ukraine”. Interview by Guy Mettan with the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova. In: Weltwoche of 30 June 2022

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