The Swiss hydro power and its future

by Narcisse Seppey, Hérémence VS

The “Blue Gold” (water) and the “Black Gold” (crude oil) have a common provenance, they are contemporaries tied to the industrial era, and they render similar services such as driving building machinery replacing pick and shovel, and trucks having unburdened the backs of donkeys and humans. Additionally, they contributed to living comfort such as lighting, heating, kitchen facilities and washing machines. Both driving forces stem all along from rough places: either from the high mountain wilderness or from the desert.
For some people it appeared to be unfair that this “manna” came from the sky and they became jealous of the beneficiaries, while the economic benefits of intensive agriculture and the industrial enterprises had to be created by humans.

Controversial older energy sources

Productivity in the industrial age was based on three sources of energy: coal to warm houses and to drive trains and ships; crude oil to operate larger engines; electricity for lighting and propelling small engines.
Today all these three natural energy sources are controversial: coal because of environmental pollution caused by fine particulate matter; oil due to air pollution and global warming attributed to it; hydroelectric power due to the reducing of the water flow rates in watercourses.

Newer energy sources

Nuclear power, as a major discovery of the 20th century, at the beginning was seen as a “godsend”. It creates a phenomenal force and had none of the drawbacks of the existing energy sources. In most industrialized countries nuclear energy has overtaken the other energy sources with its rapid spreading.
But even this much-vaunted energy star has its Achilles heel. More than any other energy sources it produces great concerns: Chernobyl showed that a destroyed nuclear power plant can be as devastating in 1,000 km distance as in the direct neighbourhood. Fukushima has illustrated the rapid loss of confidence in nuclear power plants in a country, where nuclear power has enjoyed a high reputation. The comprehensive discussion on potential damages has made the “local” effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forgotten. The fear of a nuclear disaster affects the whole world. In economically better situated countries like Switzerland the great benefits of this energy source are fading into the background because of the fears of a serious accident in a nuclear power plant and cause the population to demand phasing the nuclear power out.

Covering the current needs

In our country as well as in the neighbouring countries nuclear energy covers the energy needs to a higher percentage than any other source. Without a replacement at hand, its elimination is hardly possible.
Some countries – Germany as a pioneer – have funded the production of alternative energy with huge financial means. But energy from coal is still being used – obtained, for example, in the world’s largest mine stemming from the early 1980s – despite its contribution to air pollution. One is still heading for clean and renewable energy sources as follows:
There is the sun pleasing all countries of the world with its generous warming rays. Then there is the wind propelling our wind turbines and in third place the geothermal energy and heat pumps completing the list.
Up-to-date in our European region demand on energy is abundantly covered, as can be seen seen by falling prices. This situation results from government investment and subsidies for the development of new types of energy.

Future needs

Demand of energy never ever dwindled, despite ongoing calls for saving and deterrent measures against the waste of electricity. Future demand will continue to rise for various reasons:
On the one hand in our countries population increases from year to year, especially due to immigration, either for humanitarian reasons or on the basis of the desire for a better life. On the other hand, a better economic life opens up to broader layers of the population. One of the first effects will be the increase of energy consumption.

Foreseeable development of the current sources of energy

Currently none of the unwanted energy sources is abandoned: the nuclear power plants are still in operation, the coal is still mined and burned, oil drives still the vast majority of motor vehicles and supplies together with natural gas a large part of the heating systems.
These energies face their end, on whichever point in time is still unclear and variable depending on the country. The current alternative energy sources – others will join – enable this change. Today all peoples are aware of the dangers of air pollution and global warming and as well of the danger of a (regional) nuclear disaster. The pioneering countries will get other countries following. The already signed international agreements are clear signs of it.

The present situation of hydropower

The collapse of energy prices hurts hydroelectric power producers with full force. Their prices are by no means excessive. Compared to the solar and wind energy, they are no longer competitive, because those benefit from government subsidies, generating a significant distortion of competition.
The trend towards globalization of the economy strengthens even the temptation to procure energy as well as food from abroad at lower prices. In these two areas – to stick to those only – a wide part of the population pins the eyes on the purse, instead of placing value on quality and security of supply.

Comparison of the respective advantages

Even though they are clean and renewable, solar and wind power have weaknesses that become more and more evident now: the solar energy depends on the activities of a capricious star. At night in deep sleep, it often takes a siesta during the day, once his place is taken by rain or fog. Wind energy is exposed to mood swings as well, because the wind is blowing at speeds between 0 and 200 km per hour. Both energies depend on the season, and the most active seasons are not always the times with the highest energy demand. The solar installation provides sufficient heating capacity for a house in the winter, but produces excessive unneeded energy in the summer.
On the same market, hydropower is the only energy that can be produced without excess, immediately, and at our fingertips at day or at night, winter or summer.

A look into the future

In future, energy consumption will just rise. In addition to more economic comfort for the traditionally poor almost every modern activity requires energy. In each flat it needs energy to every nook and cranny, the residents need energy to operate their personal utilities opening them the door to social contacts.
The traditional energies will evolve in parallel in a reverse direction: one will pinpoint the environmentally harmful energy technologies ever more, and their replacement will be inevitable, because it is technically and financially feasible. Promoting electric cars, if spread widely, will massively hit the oil and gas sector.
The dangerous energies, however, will be given up once a replacement is there. The modern world esteems to protect itself against all possible risks.
Fundamental changes will probably occur faster than expected: on the basis of their power needs and the offerings of their vendors people are flirting increasingly with their own electricity production. The necessary photovoltaic panels are becoming more powerful and less expensive. Such a decision, however, requires a connection to the power supply, on the one hand to get energy when there is insufficient production, on the other hand to feed into the grid at production in excess.
If this solution spreads nationwide, hundreds of thousands of homeowners become producing consumers, while today only a few hundred large companies keep the energy production in hands. If all homeowners participate in this development, whether because of purely economic considerations or because it is fashionable today, production could cover the whole demand, without recourse on oil and nuclear power.

What kind of future does the hydropower in Switzerland have?

If the use of crude oil and nuclear power continues much longer, the Alpine reservoirs could remain filled all year-round. On the basis of the previous considerations, such a development is rather unrealistic, especially in Switzerland.
If one, however, considers the widespread production of alternative energies by private people, a joint approach is vital. In this case, the hydropower is the ideal partner, because it can bridge phases with lack of energy and store abundant energy.
It is obvious that the policy will play a crucial role in this area. If our country – following certain other states – wanted to support the alternative power production of private people with massive subsidies, so it would need to fund hydroelectric power equally, because the latter would otherwise inevitably lose its impact. If the national and cantonal policy targets balanced subsidies, the large power providers will cooperate.
In addition to the advantages of being a single always usable, clean and renewable energy, hydroelectric power offers also the great advantage of being domestic instead of the dependance on foreign energy supply.
It is also crucial that Swiss policy keeps sight of the benefits of independence from abroad and of federalism inside the country in the energy sector as well as in all other areas that affect the entire country and its people!    •
(Translation Current Concerns)