print close

“An important contribution to our power supply and to the independence of our country”

On the importance of small hydro power plants

Interview with National Councillor Jakob Büchler, President of the “Interessenverband Schweizerischer Kleinkraftwerks-Besitzer” ISKB

National Councillor Jakob Büchler is the President of the “Interessenverband Schweizerischer Kleinkraftwerks-Besitzer” (ISKB, Association of Swiss Small Hydro power Plant Owners), which has also a section in the French-speaking part of Switzerland with the name Association des Usiners Romands (ADUR). This association was founded in the German-speaking part of Switzerland in 1982, and seven years later in the French part of Switzerland. It is a stated aim of the ISKB to work together across the language border. So two representatives from the French speaking part have are members of the board. The ISKB is not a small association, with 1,200 members and when looking at the annual power output of these small hydro power plants, one is impressed. In sum the power is higher than the one of the Mühleberg nuclear power plant, and this one is certainly not a minnow. The more incomprehensible is the intention to contain governmental funding in the Energy Strategy 2050, in this segment. The Swiss Parliament has the opportunity to prevent that. The importance of the small hydro power stations in our energy landscape and the difficulties the individual power plant owners face is explained in the following interview with National Councillor Jakob Büchler, President of the ISKB.

Current Concerns: For how long have we had small hydro power stations in Switzerland?

National Councillor Jakob Büchler: Already for hundreds of years. In former times, they served as a mechanical drive of mills, sawmills and spinning mills and at the beginning of the 20th century those were increasingly electrified. At that time there were still over 7,000 small hydro power stations in Switzerland. The small hydro power stations disappeared more and more with the expansion of the electricity grid and the construction of large power plants. In the middle of the 1980s, the trend could be stopped – since then the number is growing slowly again. Today, there are about 1,200 installations in Switzerland.

They are actually seldom visible in the landscape.

Yes, often they’re integrated in the landscape in such manner that they are barely visible. If you hike through the area of Toggenburg from Wildhaus to Wil, you pass a myriad of hydro power stations which all produce electricity reliably and simultaneously protect the environment, and they directly contradict the reproach of not protecting the environment.

Where do the environmental associations put their emphasis?

It is about the minimum water flow requirements, to keep the way open for fish in both directions. Today you cannot just dam up the fish, they must have a possibility to pass installations. We must address that. If we don’t, we get stuck.

What is particular about a small hydro power plant?

It is decentralized, power is delivered directly from the production site to the consumer, you don’t have to build huge networks. That makes perfect sense. If we have a factory nearby and can directly feed the electricity in, it is best. The slogan “from the region, for the region” applies fully here. It’s applicable as well to power production. The risk of clustering is much smaller.

How must I understand this as a layperson?

Our nuclear power plants are important. They produce a lot of power, but they carry a certain risk. Our small hydro power stations are decentralized, and the electricity is consumed on site, where it is produced. That is our advantage and we have no waste to dispose of.

What kind of waters does a small hydro plant need to be successful?

Hydroelectric power plants are planned where there is enough water throughout the year and where there are certain differences in altitude. The turbine can handle varying flows to a certain extent. But it takes a certain minimum load to drive a turbine. There is a lower limit for us; we don’t want to dam every little creek and hang in a water wheel to produce a little bit of power. It must have a certain size. Certainly above 300 kW, less under certain conditions only. The waters must be suitable for this.

What role do small hydro power plants take in the Swiss Energy Strategy 2050?

During the debate in Parliament there was an antagonism between the various types of renewable energies. Although there is an organization AEE Suisse, which is the umbrella organization of the economy in the area of renewable energies, the ISKB is also a member. A look into the statistics shows that the significance of the small hydro power plants is many times bigger compared to solar energy, wind power and bio-gas. The biomass power plants often have a problem with the supply of their substrates. Wind power is unreliable. If there is no wind, nothing runs in the truest sense of the word.

To what extent does the Energy Strategy 2050 take the small hydro power plants into account?

The National Council as the first Council has voted and agreed on the compensatory feed-in remuneration, the so-called “kostendeckende Einspeisevergütung”, KEV, for new installations, and for existing installations there is a partial contribution to the investment costs. Everybody producing renewable energy wants to be supported by KEV. It was decided in article 19 to only fund installations bigger than 1,000 kilowatts. Smaller installations would be supported only under certain conditions. These installations account for about 25 percent. In an unjustified way one has concentrated on the small hydro power plants with respect to making cuts.

Why that?

The reason is that environmentalists and landscape protectionists fear, that with this funding of the hydro power plants the last free-flowing waters will be obstructed and the ongoing restoration of the waters will be slowed down.

Is that comprehensible?

The anxiety is understandable, the reality is a different one. There are many projects thought of in secluded waters, but the present funding will never be sufficient to build very small installations in such unspoiled places. Very small installations can only be operated economically, where building installations have already existed and these can be re-used.

Is there a reason why the Federal Government does not want to promote the small hydro power plants any longer? Hydroelectric power is something that perfectly fits our topography, our tradition and our industrial development.

Yes, that’s right. The following is to be noted: the whole energy strategy is a huge package. The economy is generally opposed to the Energy Strategy 2050, also the cantons are dissatisfied.

Why that?

The reason is that the large hydro-power is owned by the cantons. A battle for the share has arisen among the renewable energies and unfortunately also between large and small hydro power. Large hydro power plants such as Linth-Limmern also want contributions to the investment in buildings and would like to obtain funding from the Federal Government. You can’t reproach the large-scale hydro power for this. It is the result of the battle for the share between wind power, solar energy, biomass and whatever is around and hydro power. That we have increased the KEV rate from 1.5 to 2.3 cents is also controversial. We will have to have a referendum concerning this issue. Are we willing to pay a surcharge for renewable electricity? We pay the KEV-surcharge as consumers to the Federal Government, which then redistributes the money again out of the big pot.

How did this KEV come about?

There are big industrial sectors running their own power plants and thus producing electricity which they consume themselves. Later on electricity production was redirected, so that they could feed electricity into the grid. Then the electricity lobby came up and said: You may supply us electricity, but we’ll pay you nothing. Then the federal government introduced the KEV, the compensatory feed-in remuneration, an actual sales guarantee. It partially went so far that the major electricity plants said, the power production is fine, but actually we don’t really need your electricity. This is the background for the distribution battle.

Why don’t we need the electricity?

Electricity production in Europe is infinite. A lot of electricity is being produced. Federal Councillor Leuthard said, I get enough electricity, the table is richly covered, I can choose what electricity I want to take.

But that is electricity from abroad?

Yes, if we purchase electricity from abroad, no one knows exactly how it has been produced, possibly from brown coal power stations heavily polluting our environment. It might even be nuclear power? This is not honest, we are closing our nuclear power plants down and purchasing electricity from nuclear power plants abroad. You cannot manage economy that way.

From what you have told so far, one can conclude, that you aren’t satisfied with Energy Strategy 2050 either.

I am sceptical about Energy Strategy 2050. In my opinion, Doris Leuthard was a bit too fast and dashing in her acting. We are indorsed by a popular initiative “without nuclear power in Switzerland”. Next year we have to vote on it. The initiative demands that nuclear power plants are to be closed down two years after adoption of the popular initiative; the latest nuclear power plants 45 years after commissioning.

What does that mean?

The initiative adopted, the last nuclear power plant would have to be closed down in 2029. This is a hard cut. If the initiative is accepted, we will have a genuine problem. I believe in research and technology and that we are able to develop new techniques and methods in the next few years, but we will not be able to cope with drastic remedies. If at the end, we in Switzerland have no more nuclear power and are not able to replace it in our own country, we will be totally depending on abroad.

I would like to seize upon this issue of dependence. Small hydro power plants, as well as micro-hydro power plants make a very important contribution to the self-generation of electric power. The fact that, at the moment, there is a lot of electric power on the market, could make us say, what the hell, in that case, we’ll take the electric power from abroad. That would be devastating. Do we not have to follow the path that brings us genuine energy security?

In any case. We need to be as self-subsistent as possible in terms of energy. We will neither achieve this in the oil nor in the natural gas sector, but in the electric power sector we should achieve this to the greatest possible degree. Switzerland is a water castle, this is also known in Europe. Electricity from hydro power is absolutely clean energy. It would be paradoxical if now we simply went and disconnected hydroelectric power. This is absolutely short-sighted and must by no means happen.

Electricity, cheaply produced abroad, is an attack on our energy sovereignty. If electric power abroad is so cheap, we are barely able to build new plants in Switzerland, because they will no longer pay for themselves and no one will build a hydroelectric power plant, if, at the end, it will only operate at a loss. Must we not give top priority, politics as well, to the protection of domestic energy supply?

In the present situation, it will be difficult to obtain understanding that one wants to support hydro power with large funding. We have a current surplus. The operators of big systems, such as Linth-Limmern who have invested 1.5 billion in the project, are struggling with the fact that with the fall in electricity prices they can no longer operate in the black. It’s devastating. It is perhaps comparable to a farmer who has expanded his stable so that he can greatly increase the number of cows, and suddenly the milk price drops to 50 cents. This is a disaster. He is deeply indebted and is not able to earn enough. We are currently not able to produce electricity at cost-covering prices. That is our problem. When they began to build Linth- Limmern, no one could expect electricity prices to decrease to such an extent. One year ago, we did neither expect the price of oil to decline as extremely as it does now. A current example is also the euro or the dollar. These are strategies that must be seen in a global context. There is a high production of electricity. Many have considered this as a way to make money. We have introduced a quota regime for the quantity of milk for the farmers, which, of course, is difficult for electricity. Under any circumstances we now must avoid the error to rely on cheap imports. This will have devastating consequences. There will be other times to come, for sure.

What is politically possible at the moment?

I hope the Council of States will bring further corrections. I am not satisfied with respect to our small hydro power plants. The plan not to support the 300-kilowatt power plants, but only the larger ones is wrong. Our power plants have been around for decades, we have produced electricity continuously and reliably, have fed the electricity into the grid, because it was used directly in the region, and have always protected the environment.

The environmentalists should also recognize that after all, shouldn´t they?

Yes, of course, but with every project we have a dispute with the environmental organizations. Once again we’re in the midst of such a project. It’s a real fight until you can open a power plant. That is not so easy to cope with.

According to their opinion, is there still too little attention paid to the environment?

This reproach can be immediately rejected. The ecological enhancement of water is always a very important requirement: we take into account that the waters will not be obstructed for fish, which must be granted. We are planning a well enough residual water so that the streams do not dry out, etc. We take absolute care that everything meets the requirements, so there will not be any additional delay.

Are there still places where you can build small hydro power plants?

We have already taken a lot of good places with small hydro power plants. But I am absolutely against the creation of a law which prohibits the further expansion of sites. It is not our intention to dam every brook, but where it makes sense, we must have the opportunity to build small hydro power plants.

Who are the operators of small hydro electric power stations?

Many of these works have been family-owned for generations. For decades they have looked after them with a lot of passion, cherished and cared for them in many hours without payment of any kind. They give everything to preserve this tradition. The plant was built by the grandfather, then it was bequeathed to the father, from him to the son and will later be left to the grandson, and this should continue. They know they make an important contribution to our electricity supply and our national sovereignty, because if we continue making us dependent on foreign energy supplies, we will be vulnerable to blackmail in an emergency.

This must be avoided by all means.

Yes, sure. Add to this that some power plants of ISKB hardly produce surplus. The owners do not get rich by it, but they contribute to the common good. They have made their profession a hobby. Should we punish them now? Investment in a small hydro power plant, which is continuously monitored, are not small. It requires a new water wheel or extensive renovations or adjustments at the inlet. These are fairly large investments. Of course, the operator of such a plant may earn something es well. The cost is calculated after all, because the life of these systems is very long. What‘s more, the technology of these power plants is tested and successful, concerning wind power we have very little experience and also wind is something very capricious. Subjectively, you have the feeling that there is wind, but for the operation of a wind turbine, which has the corresponding capacity, there are not many places in the country. With the hydro power this is quite different. The owners of a small hydro power plant will not be millionaires, but they contribute significantly and passionately to our power and thus for the autonomy and independence of our country.

National Councillor Büchler, thank you very much!     •

(Interview Thomas Kaiser)