Will Switzerland find itself in the dark this winter?

Europe’s water tower in summer thanks to its hydraulic power stations, Switzerland experiences the opposite situation in winter when it depends on electricity imports from Germany and France.

Although very rich, Switzerland fears a power outage this winter if France’s nuclear reactors remain shut down and if Berlin, because of the war in Ukraine, reduces its exports of gas-fired electricity. In summer, Switzerland, the water tower of Europe thanks to hundreds of hydraulic power stations, exports electricity, but in winter it is the opposite. Normally this would not be a problem, but since the war in Ukraine, Russian gas has stopped flowing to Europe.

However, Switzerland, which has no gas reserves on its land, imports electricity produced with German gas in the winter, facing this year a reduction in Russian gas supplies. “The other problem is that on the French side, half of the nuclear fleet is at a standstill” due in particular to the problem of corrosion, explained to AFP Stéphane Genoud, professor of energy management at the large university school HES-SO. This combination of factors raises the fear of electricity shortages.

Get out of nuclear

The launch in early September of a powerful pumped-storage hydroelectric power station at Finhaut-Emosson near Mont-Blanc in the Swiss Alps, 600 meters below the rock and at an altitude of 1,700 meters, will not change the situation much. In a classic check dam, once the lake is empty, production stops.

In this plant (christened Nant De Drance), there is nothing like this. Located between two dams at different heights, it takes advantage of periods of excess production in the electricity grid of wind or solar origin, to pump water from the lower basin to the upper one. A water it releases during times of high demand for electricity. “It’s like a big battery. We can regenerate the electricity at the right time, during the daily peaks in the morning or at night,” Robert Gleitz, from the management of Alpiq, one of the shareholders company, told AFP in central.

The plant “arrives at an appropriate time and will help accelerate the transition of energy” to renewable energies, he explained during a visit to the installation. But he pointed out that this type of plant can only support the electricity market in the short term since it cannot generate electricity when the water is returned to the upper basin.

“In the current situation, it usefully increases a production of renewable electricity that is still very low,” said Nicolas Wüthrich of the Pro Natura organization to AFP. Like other NGOs, he particularly lamented Switzerland’s delay in its energy transition, as the country decided to phase out nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. By 2020, Switzerland will have ca- our only wind farm.

Cut expected

According to Boris Salak, an expert at the Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, about 750 wind turbines and solar panels on a third of the roofs are needed to reach the 2050 targets of the government’s energy strategy. At the end of 2021, even before the war in Ukraine, the Swiss organization for the supply of electricity during a crisis thus emphasized that the risk of lack of electricity is already “high” in the country.

In recent days, the government has called for no drama while making sure to prepare for power shortages. The chairman of the Federal Electricity Commission, Werner Luginbühl, warned that more cuts are expected. The Swiss are rushing for generators and solar panels for balconies, while leftist parties are calling for quick action.

Others, like economist Stéphane Garelli, expect mild measures to encourage people to consume less electricity. Stéphane Genoud considers that Bern is likely to introduce more restrictive measures such as “quotas for large consumers” of electricity, such as large companies, or power cuts. But, he hopes, “if the French are able to restart the reactors, if Putin does not bother and if it is not cold, we will miss a shortage or a blackout”.

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