The Ukraine war has given the discussion about Switzerland’s energy future a new urgency. The Federal Council wants to get away from oil and gas – not just from that from Russia. The goal: net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
This brings one form of energy into focus: electricity. Switzerland will order from the CO2 get rid of, will need massively more electricity in the next few years and decades than before. The Federal Electricity Commission (Elcom) warns that security of supply could soon be at risk. Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga (61) wants to oblige the hydroelectric power plants to have a reserve ready as early as next winter. In addition, two to three gas-fired power plants are to be built as a back-up.
Sommaruga’s plans are controversial. Just like the plan of the SVP to overturn the ban on nuclear power plants. But where does electricity actually come from today – and where does it go? Blick provides the basics on Swiss electricity.
Where does the electricity from the socket come from?
The current flows: In Switzerland, this phrase can be taken literally. Two-thirds of the 56 terawatt hours of electricity we use comes from hydropower. Three quarters of this is produced in Switzerland – in storage power plants with storage lakes and in run-of-river power plants on rivers. Solar cells provide most of the remaining renewable energy.
How green is Swiss electricity?
Switzerland is lagging behind in Europe when it comes to expanding renewable energies. Only seven percent of the electricity in 2020 was generated from solar and wind energy or biomass. A third of the electricity produced in Switzerland is supplied by the four nuclear power plants – for now. After Switzerland decided to phase out nuclear power in 2011, the last nuclear power plant is likely to go offline in around 20 years.
How dependent are we on foreign countries?
Eleven percent of the electricity that flows out of the socket comes from abroad. Viewed over the year as a whole, Switzerland exports more electricity than it imports. But it’s different in winter: in the last 20 years, we almost always had to rely on foreign electricity to cover our electricity needs during the cold months. On average, Switzerland has had to import around 4 terawatt hours of electricity in winter since 2010.
This is due to the fact that significantly more electricity is used in Switzerland in winter, but less is produced at the same time. The greater the share of renewable energies in the electricity mix, the larger this winter gap will be. This is because there are large seasonal fluctuations in hydropower and photovoltaics.
Why is this a problem?
Dependence on other countries is a major risk for security of supply in Switzerland. Elcom warns that Switzerland could face power shortages as early as 2025.
One reason for this is the failed framework agreement. Without this, an electricity agreement with the EU would be a long way off. And without this agreement, according to the federal government, it could happen again that Germany, France and other neighboring countries will temporarily export significantly less electricity to Switzerland or even no electricity at all from 2025 due to new rules. In addition, the neighboring countries are also expanding the share of renewable energies, which has an impact on the security of supply in Switzerland.
How does the electricity get from the power plant to the socket?
250,000 kilometers of lines ensure that electricity is available wherever we need it. If you lined up all the cables, you could span the world six times. The approximately 6,700-kilometer-long high-voltage network is almost entirely laid above ground – on masts – and is used to transport electricity over large distances. Before the electricity ends up in the socket, the voltage is reduced in several steps. The fine distribution of electricity usually takes place underground using underground cables. Electricity is imported and exported via 41 cross-border power lines.
Who uses the most electricity?
A good third of electricity consumption is accounted for by households. From 2000 to 2020, household consumption increased by an average of 1 percent per year. The reason for this: population growth.
Household consumption has stabilized in recent years, which can be explained by the increasing energy efficiency of washing machines, ovens, televisions and other appliances. Per capita consumption has fallen.
The largest electricity consumers in Switzerland are the SBB: Almost eight percent of the electricity is used for public transport, a large part is required for the operation of the train network. The SBB are not only electricity consumers, but also electricity producers. A large part of the electricity used comes from our own hydroelectric power plants. Ten percent is nuclear power, which is to be completely replaced by renewable energies by 2025.
What are the biggest power guzzlers in the home?
The average household consumes the most electricity in the kitchen. A family with two children living in a detached house uses around 450 kWh per year for the stove, oven, coffee machine and other small kitchen appliances. According to SFOE estimates, the refrigerator needs around 330 kWh and the dishwasher 250 kWh. The lighting also consumes a lot of electricity: around 420 kWh. Almost the same amount is spent on the television and other consumer electronics. Computers, printers, modems and the like consume around 330 kWh in an average four-person household.
kWh, TWh – what does that mean?
Switzerland consumed 56 TWh of electricity in 2020, an average Swiss 4-person household needs around 5000 kWh per year and an LED lamp 5 watts per hour. Measurements that many people cannot imagine.
1 terawatt hour (TWh) corresponds to one thousand gigawatt hours (MWh) or one billion kilowatt hours (kWh). The mass indicates how much energy a device consumes or produces per hour. Very practical: If you blow-dry your hair for two hours, you use 1 kilowatt hour. By the way: On average, 1 kWh of electricity in Switzerland costs a good 20 centimes.
How much money does Switzerland make from electricity trading?
The lucrative electricity business – that was once. In 2008, Switzerland took in more than 2 billion francs from exports, in 2020 it was just under 300 million. And this despite the fact that the export surplus two years ago was significantly larger than in 2008. According to the Federal Office of Energy, the reason for this is enormous price fluctuations on the electricity market. And these are increasing because of the war in Ukraine. The Federal Council is therefore planning a rescue package for the electricity industry.
How clean is Swiss electricity in an international comparison?
In the EU, the share of renewable energies has doubled in the last ten years, with wind and solar energy in particular expanding. In Germany, the proportion rose from seven percent in 2000 to over 40 percent today. However, almost a fifth of the electricity production in the neighboring country to the north is still based on coal. France, on the other hand, is a nuclear power country, Italy relies primarily on natural gas. In Austria, more than 80 percent of the electricity produced is green – but if you also include the imported electricity, the share of renewable energies in electricity consumption is still a good third.
What has happened so far in the expansion of renewable energies?
The expansion of green electricity received state support for the first time in the 1990s. A milestone was then the yes of the voters in 2017 to the Energy Strategy 2050: Switzerland decided to ban new nuclear power plants and to promote renewable energies more. As a result, the share of green electricity in domestic production has increased steadily in recent years. In 2000 only one percent of the electricity in Switzerland was produced from sun, wind and biomass. Today the proportion is seven percent.
The federal government’s goal is to increase electricity production from renewable energies – excluding hydroelectric power – from the current 4,700 GWh to 17,000 GWh by 2035. Hydropower is expected to increase to 37,400 GWh by 2035 and 38,600 GWh by 2050.
And how does it continue?
Heat pumps instead of oil heaters, electric cars instead of petrol engines: Because Switzerland wants to get away from fossil fuels, the demand for electricity will increase massively in the coming years and decades. In addition, there is the end of nuclear power: A third of the local electricity production is lost and has to be replaced. This will result in an increase in imports until renewable energies are developed enough to fill the gap.
According to the Federal Council, Switzerland may have to import up to 15 TWh of electricity in winter – almost four times as much as today. And seen over the year as a whole, Switzerland is likely to need 38 to 59 percent more electricity by 2050, depending on the scenario, according to a study commissioned by the federal government. Even if the expansion of renewable energies is progressing according to plan, Swiss energy policy will face enormous challenges in the coming decades.