The figure is often and happily quoted: 60 percent of Swiss electricity comes from hydropower. But
How come? To find out, you have to go deep into the archives. Here, for example, one comes across an article in the Berner «Bund» from 1927, which states: «The shortage of fuel and supplies during the World War helped electricity to achieve a breakthrough in our country.» «Electricity» is synonymous with «hydropower». It sounded similar during the Second World War. At that time, the director of the Bündner Elektrizitätswerke justified the further expansion of “local hydroelectric power” with the words: “Our economy must become largely independent of coal and oil.”
The 1939 State Exhibition dedicated a pavilion to hydroelectric power, including the power plant, reservoir and pressure line on a scale of 1:50. The name of this complex installation: «Electricity – the white coal».
Independence from oil did not work out, but the hydropower project is one of the most impressive successes in the history of the Confederation. And a political tour de force, in the name of which many people were expected to do a lot.
In autumn 1921, for example, a newspaper reported under the headline “Victims of Electricity” about the fate of 260 residents of the Schwyz village of Innerthal, whose houses were flooded for the new Wägitalersee. Twice as many people were then forcibly evacuated for the Sihlsee very close by. Resistance also regularly arose: villages fought against their demise, others feared that the high alpine dams would burst. From the beginning there were also nature conservationists who found the preservation of the landscape more important than electrification.
In 1970, Swiss hydroelectric power plants produced more than 30 terawatt hours of electricity. That is hardly less than today, which means in plain language: We owe the 60 percent renewable electricity that we are so proud of mainly to our great-grandparents. We think like the Egyptian tourism industry: it also lives from the legacy of the old pyramid builders.
On the other hand, Switzerland lags far behind other European countries when it comes to so-called new renewables. Germany generates twice as much solar power per inhabitant, and wind power is even 95 times more.
Solar energy in particular fits in with an understanding of the state that is geared towards decentralization. Basically, it corresponds much better to Switzerland as a country of federalism and local autonomy than the pharaonic hydroelectric power plants. French President Emmanuel Macron, who just announced the construction of 14 new nuclear power plants, stands for a completely different understanding of the state.
It is up to each individual architect, each individual builder, to insulate new houses or houses to be renovated and to mount sufficient solar modules on them. But because this rarely happens, the cantons should legally require thermal insulation and photovoltaic systems – and then pay a decent price for the electricity fed into the grid.
As my colleague Danny Schlumpf shows in the current Sunday newspaper, Switzerland could cover its entire energy needs with solar power at low cost. Heating, hot water, mobility included. And for those days in late winter, when the sun shines sparsely and the pumped storage lakes are empty, there would also be wind turbines.
In short: a Switzerland that is largely independent of energy sources from abroad would be possible – if only the will were there. If only we put in some of the effort that our great-grandparents showed. Because unlike a reservoir, nobody loses their roof over their heads because of a photovoltaic system. On the contrary.
In April 1912, the NZZ wrote in a shaky but memorable way: “Every drop of water that escapes unused from a hydroelectric power plant means a waste and a loss for the national economy.” The same applies to solar energy in 2022: every unused ray of sunshine that hits a house is a scandal, a sign of underexposure in terms of energy policy.