Swiss energy supply put to the test

Why is the Federal Council’s policy so hesitant?

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

For years the Swiss Federal Electricity Commission ElCom1 has been pointing out the fact that sooner or later Switzerland will be heading for an electricity shortage in winter. According to ElCom President Werner Luginbühl, it presently looks as if this might be sooner, namely in the upcoming winter. As early as at the beginning of July, the president of Swissgas, André Dosé, also warned of an impending gas shortage. The latter in particular voiced clear criticism of the Federal Council’s policy.

Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga, head of the Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC), would like to hush up the unsuitability of the Federal Council’s energy strategy by blaming “Russia” for causing a possible supply shortage. Indeed, in a recent incendiary speech she even used the Ukraine war as a lever for the integration of Switzerland into the EU/NATO.

Politics has taken ElCom’s warnings too little seriously

The statement by Werner Luginbühl, President of the Electricity Commission (ElCom), that it would be advisable to have enough candles in the house, and also enough firewood if you have a wood-burning stove, spread like wildfire through Switzerland. In a newspaper interview, Luginbühl went on to say: “In today’s situation, it is not possible to completely rule out shutdowns by the hour. That’s why it’s important to take the necessary precautions.” This is a worst-case scenario, Luginbühl said. But it makes sense to think about what you would do if you were without power for a few hours.2
  To be sure, according to the ElCom president, Switzerland is in a better situation than many other countries as far as electricity supply is concerned. “We can produce 60 % of our consumption domestically with hydropower. Around one third of electricity consumption comes from nuclear power plants. And then there is indeed a remainder of 5 to 10 per cent that we have to import. That is where our greatest risks are: that we might not be able to procure that part of our electricity supply in Europe next winter.”
  It is the task of the Federal Council and parliament to initiate and promote the production of this “remainder”. Because even an electricity agreement with the EU would not provide us with electricity and gas next winter if our neighbouring countries were short themselves.
  Werner Luginbühl criticises politicians for “not having taken seriously enough the warnings ElCom has been issuing for years about an electricity shortage in winter. Switzerland must address the issue of supply security much more decisively and resolutely”.3
  This is mild criticism by the current head of ElCom: We may recall far more trenchant comments by his predecessor Carlo Schmid-Sutter from Appenzell-Innerrhoden.

“Federal Council’s energy strategy
is turning out to be yesterday’s news”

The clear statement by NZZ economics editor Christoph Eisenring on the Federal Council’s “Energy Strategy 2050” is all the more surprising. ElCom President Luginbühl’s recommendation that the population buy candles and firewood is, he claims, “the declaration of bankruptcy regarding the energy strategy”. For the federal government admits “that it cannot protect the Swiss from precisely that danger that it itself sees as the greatest risk for the country: a shortage of electricity”, says Christoph Eisenring.4 And he continues: “The Federal Council’s energy strategy is turning out to be yesterday’s news. There was talk of increasing efficiency, which would ensure that there would be hardly any increase in consumption. And the fact that wind and solar power need back-up power plants to make ends meet in winter was ignored for far too long.” Eisenring asks, whether we must not make allowance to the government for the fact that the war in Ukraine was unforeseeable, and answers his question himself: “Anyone arguing in this way is taking the easy way out. The present threat corresponds with what would happen as of 2025 anyway, according to an earlier analysis by Luginbühl’s office.”
  DETEC head Sommaruga makes it as easy for herself: “Why do we have a problem today? Because Russia is turning off the gas tap and Switzerland is completely dependent on foreign countries for oil and gas.”5 So once again the blame is put on Russia! And yet the Swiss “Energy Strategy 2050” concerns only the electricity supply.
  On the other hand, until 2021 the security of gas supply was in no way considered to be at risk, because Russia had and has been a reliable partner for Switzerland and the other European countries for decades. Today, we Europeans have to fear a gas shortage simply because our governments have taken such massive sanctions against Russia that they cannot even (or do not want to) guarantee payment to the Russian gas companies. No company would deliver under these circumstances. Instead of making sure that Russian gas flows again through Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, our leaders prefer to contribute to the astronomical profits of the oil and gas industry (see box on “Glencore”). They make a lot of noise in the Gulf states in order to grab expensive fossil energies, and they build liquid gas storage facilities for dirty and even more expensive US fracking gas. Are all these really suppliers with impeccable human rights records? And we citizens have to pay for it!

“This crisis in Switzerland is largely self-inflicted”

Also André Dosé, former Swiss Airlines chief and currently president of “Swissgas”, is sharply critical of the Federal Council’s energy policy: “We are dependent on year-round gas imports and electricity imports in winter. This crisis in Switzerland is largely self-inflicted. Our Energy Strategy 2050 was built on sand. It was assumed that there would be no population growth and that the population would reduce electricity consumption. Likewise, electromobility was not included in the scenarios at the time of the vote. It was a pipe dream that would never have worked anyway. The war in Ukraine is now forcing us to rethink dramatically.”6 A note for Swiss voters: As they were cheated and short-changed by the wrong forecasts in their voting booklet, the majority of voters approved the “Energy Strategy 2050” at the ballot box in May 2017!
  André Dosé accuses the Federal Council of not acting adequately both in the current crisis situation and in their longer-term planning: “[…] In crises you have to move forward quickly, set priorities and make decisions”. In order to guarantee energy security in the long term, there is “no short-term solution. The expansion of photovoltaics is right and good – but it won’t get us through the winter.”
  In contradiction to this, Federal Councillor Sommaruga asserts that she is doing everything possible to prevent a shortage: The Federal Council has “set up a rescue package for large electricity companies and prepared a hydropower reserve for the critical winter period. Because of the war in Ukraine, we have also instructed the gas industry to procure additional gas.”7 In addition, the federal government has called on large companies that can work with oil instead of gas to fill their oil stocks. Well, well: A few years ago, the Swiss population was urged to replace their oil heating systems with gas heating systems. We dutifully did so – and now 300,000 flats are heated with gas, including those in the apartment building where I live. In affluent Switzerland, many still functioning oil-fired heating systems have even been ripped out! What a waste of energy! Today we no longer have an oil tank and will probably have to pay for it. But according to “SonntagsBlick”, our energy minister has her recipes for that, too: Switzerland should “take the EU as a model” and save 15 % energy in the time till spring. The corresponding campaign (turn down the heating, take showers instead of baths, etc.) will be launched soon.
  Concerning gas storage, most of the Federal Council’s measures came too late, wrote Swissgas chief Dosé in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” in July. Today, the regional companies are busy filling the federally mandated storage facilities abroad, but, “whether the gas will really, physically flow in a European situation of shortage is anything but certain.” Switzerland had missed the opportunity to act in time: “We should have secured gas for one or two billion francs three months ago. But this did not happen. Now the acquisition will cost three times as much.” [Emphasis mw] Compared to 2019, the gas price is even 25 times higher, according to Dosé! Some energy companies are earning money hand over fist, and we pay – or freeze.
  The Federal Council’s cutting-edge activism shows precisely just how justified Dosé’s criticism is. According to its media release of 17 August 2022, it wants to use gas-fired power plants to bridge the expected winter gap. Interestingly, an “efficient, private gas-fired power plant” in Birr (Canton of Aargau) is now suddenly being conjured up out of the blue, which may “help out” in the short term (“How an Aargau reserve power plant is to bridge electricity gaps”. SRF News, 18 August 2022). Two critical questions: Firstly, how much will this emergency aid cost the taxpayer? Anyone who organises an emergency reserve for the winter only just before the autumn will have to pay disproportionately more! Secondly, why does the Federal Council not admit openly that so-called gas-fired power plants will almost certainly have to be run on oil, because gas is also known to be in short supply? In an aside, one learns of the Federal Council’s stipulation that “due to the uncertain gas supply situation, such plants should also function with oil (dual-fuel plants), if possible.” How embarrassing for the climate protectionists …
  A small consolation is the transit gas pipeline from Germany to Italy through Switzerland. André Dosé: “This is important for Switzerland’s security of supply. It is specified in the concession that Switzerland can declare a shortage and that some of the gas could then flow into Switzerland.” However, he warns, if no more Russian natural gas flows through the pipeline, the entire European supply would suffer. As I said, our governments are called upon to resume talks with Russia and to create a sustainable solution, not just an overpriced patches policy for the next few months.

Close the energy gap and reduce
dependence on foreign countries

ElCom President Werner Luginbühl and Swissgas President André Dosé both see a variety of possibilities for achieving a sufficient energy supply, and NZZ editor Christoph Eisenring as well as many other thinking contemporaries also have their own ideas on that point. To present these here would go beyond the scope of this article. The call from Bern: “We must expand the production of renewable energies!” is to be supported, and after all, Switzerland’s greatest means of electricity supply, i.e. hydropower, is being promoted more today than in the past. However, parliament should move forward with the planned “Federal Act on a Secure Electricity Supply with Renewable Energies”, which has been pending in the relevant committees of the Council of States for about a year.8 On the first reading, one misses the urgently needed streamlined procedure for planning applications for power plants, so that the expansion of a dam will no longer be put on hold for years or even decades. But the draft law has not yet been debated in the National Council or the Council of States, so there is still hope!

“We will find comprehensive security in and with Europe” – do you
really believe this, Madam Federal Councillor?

When giving a speech at an event organised by the “Association of Swiss Media” in Locarno, Ms Sommaruga apparently forgot that the Swiss Federal Council is a collegial authority whose members should exercise some restraint in voicing their private opinions. It is particularly tasteless to misuse the war in Ukraine as a vehicle for an appeal for Switzerland’s integration into the EU: “The war in Ukraine is not only a wake-up call for many in terms of energy policy. It is also a foreign policy wake-up call.”9 It is time, she said, for a “rapprochement with Europe. We will not find comprehensive security just by spending more money on our army. We will find comprehensive security in and with Europe.”
  It looks as if the lady not only wants to join the EU, but also NATO – will Switzerland find “comprehensive security” there? How absurd! NATO is a war alliance, the EU is now a war party. Switzerland, on the other hand, is a neutral country, and the Federal Council is obliged under Art. 185 para. 1 of the Federal Constitution to “take measures to safeguard external security, independence and neutrality of Switzerland”. It is currently not fulfilling this duty in any way, and has not been doing so for some time. Only Sommaruga’s colleague in the Council, Ueli Maurer, recently reminded us in a speech that Switzerland must adhere to the principle of neutrality also in the Ukraine conflict.
  “A stable political majority” was needed for the next step “towards Europe”, said Sommaruga, i.e. a “clear majority of the parties and the economy”.
  The electorate is not included in this “stable political majority”. Many an EU turbo would prefer the people to not “forever” have the last word in direct-democratic Switzerland. But the citizens have had the last word for a long, long time. And that is how it should stay.  •

1 The Federal Electricity Commission (ElCom) is responsible for monitoring the security of electricity supply.
2 Humbel, Georg. “Politicians have taken our warnings too little seriously for too long”. Interview with Werner Luginbühl. In: NZZ am Sonntag of 7 August 2022
3 Keystone-SDA. “ElCom head Luginbühl on electricity shortage: ‘Situation could be managed’”. In: Swissinfo of 7 August 2022
4 “Declaration of bankruptcy for Swiss energy strategy”. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 8 August 2022
5 Alabor, Camilla and Marti, Simon. “Sommaruga’s electricity saving plan. ‘Heating down in public buildings’”. In: SonntagsBlick of 14 August 2022.
6 Vonplon, David; Hosp, Gerald. “André Dosé on the energy crisis: ‘People in Switzerland are not aware of how dangerous the situation is’”. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 6 July 2022
7 Alabor, Camilla and Marti, Simon. “Sommaruga’s electricity saving plan. ‘Heating down in public buildings’”. In: SonntagsBlick of 14 August 2022
9 “Soirée Medias. Speech by Federal Councillor Simonetta& Sommaruga at an event organised by the Association of Swiss Media in Locarno. In: Federal Council media release of 6 August 2022, (not available in English)

“Glencore turns huge profit thanks to high commodity prices”

“In the first half of the year 2022, Glencore has benefited from the high level of commodity prices and the trading business, which has recently flourished to an exceptional extent. This is reflected in a half-year profit of $12.1 billion. Compared to the previous year, the result of this commodity trading and mining group has thus increased almost tenfold.”

sda news of 4 August 2022

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