Reviewing the issues in the upcoming Swiss referendum on energy

We get so involved in EU energy and climate policies that we often miss out on important developments in neighbouring countries. Le News provides a good assessment of the issues in the upcoming public vote in Switzerland to approve the draft energy act.


Some numbers behind the divisive Swiss vote on energy

On 21 May 2017, Swiss will vote on the Energy Act, a body of law put together in September 2016. The plan, supported by a Swiss parliamentary majority of 120 to 72, and a an upper house (Council of States) majority of 35 to 6, will be put to a public vote in a couple of weeks.

The plan aims to revolutionise Switzerland’s energy use and production by 2050, with a focus on reducing consumption, improving energy efficiency and promoting renewables. Under the plan, building new nuclear power facilities would be prohibited and existing ones would be gradually shut down.

The government believes that its plan will bring investment and jobs to Switzerland, reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels from abroad and significantly reduce the nations greenhouse gas emissions.

The plan has several phases. The first aims to reduce energy consumption, increase energy efficiency and promote renewable energies such as water, solar, wind, geothermal power, and biomass fuels. Temporary support would be given to hydropower plants, currently struggling because of low market prices.

As sometimes happens in Switzerland, those who oppose the work of government and cannot effect change from within, take their fight to the people in the from of a popular vote.

This current referendum was put forward by a number of politicians and members of the public. Opposition has broad support from the Swiss People’s Party (UDC / SVP). Most other parties, such as the Liberal Radical Party (PLR / FDP), Greens and Socialist Party support the government’s plan. At the same time, a number of members from parties supporting the plan, oppose it. For example some members of the Liberal Radical Party, a party supporting the plan, are strongly opposed to it.

How big is the challenge?

It is big. The plan aims to reduce energy consumption by 40%, shift towards renewables, and phase out nuclear electricity. A team of scientists at EPFL, one of Switzerland’s universities, estimates the gap to be filled by renewable sources of electricity production alone, to be around 30 TWh, or 40% of total 2050 electricity demand. This gap will be driven mainly by the phasing out of nuclear power generation.

How clean is Switzerland?

Despite big hydro production of electricity, Switzerland is no star when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPFL-based team. Why? Switzerland imports electricity from abroad that is produced using coal and gas. They also point out that electricity is only one slice of total emissions.

A lot of Switzerland’s heating is diesel, 53% in 2013, or gas, 20% in 2013. It also has a high-emission vehicle fleet. Overall, Switzerland’s emissions sit around the middle of global emission rankings at around 5.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions per resident per year. For example, Brazil, with around 2 tonnes is far lower. At the other end is the US with around 17 tonnes, and small fossil-fuel-dependent states like Qatar at over 35 tonnes.

What about more hydro in Switzerland?

This has limited scope according to the EPFL team. There are few suitable new sites. Expansion is largely limited to extensions of existing dams and small micro dams.

The 2050 plan includes a small 3% increase in energy from hydro.

Where will the energy come from?

Current energy consumption is around 250 TWh. The plan aims to reduce that figure to 150 TWh, a 40% drop in consumption.

It also plans to change the energy mix and shift it towards low carbon sources. It aims to reduce reduce energy reliance on oil from 133 TWh to 21 TWh, an 84% drop. Use of gas will also be targeted. Here the hoped decline is from 33 TWh to 15 TWh, a drop of 54%. In addition nuclear, currently 23 TWh will shift to zero.

The plan aims to fill the gap with solar (from 1 to 18 TWh), heat pumps (from 4 to 9 TWh), bio fuels (from 20 to 35 TWh), wind (from 0.03 to 5 TWh), geothermal (from 0 to 5 TWh) and biomass (from 0.2 to 5 TWh).

The plan also includes a “stick”. Current carbon taxes in Switzerland are around CHF 60 per tonne of CO2 equivalent, 12 times the EU average. Given the energy shift required they are low. Part of the plan, set for introduction in 2021, is focused on raising taxes on high emission energy sources. Experts say that because of the high level of integration of European energy markets, the EU needs to play ball and increase these taxes too.

Criticism of the plan

The Swiss government and its supporters stand by the 2050 plan. Critics on the other hand think the plan will be too expensive, will lead to burdensome bureaucracy, place Switzerland’s energy supply at risk, damage the landscape, and hurt business.

By one calculation, the additional cost of the plan for a family of four comes to CHF 3,200 per year, a number calculated by dividing the CHF 200 billion spending estimate by headcount and years. However, this figure includes investment in assets as well as expenses. Building infrastructure and expensing all of the expenditure isn’t good accounting unless the completed infrastructure is worthless.

Critics also argue that a plan to erect 1,000 wind turbines will destroy Swiss vistas and kill birds. Turbine noise is also a concern. In addition, they point out the volatility of wind and solar generation. The wind doesn’t necessarily blow and the sun doesn’t always shine at times of peak demand. They point to the bad experience in Germany. Switzerland has one advantage over Germany in this regard: it can store energy by using the excesses at peaks to pump water up to dams so that the dam water can later be used to generate electricity when demanded. About 20% of the energy is is lost through this process and this trick cannot be applied to every instance.

The missing bit

The government’s 2050 plan is focused on energy. This means it overlooks one of the largest elements of greenhouse gas emissions: food and agriculture. Food choice and the way it is produced have more impact on greenhouse gas emissions than energy by some measures1.

Reducing livestock numbers and converting pasture to forest would have a profound impact, not only on reducing livestock emissions, but greenhouse gas absorption. And because producing plant protein is so much more land efficient than meat and dairy, it would in theory be possible to meet food requirements with much less farm land. The catch is that it would require a dietary shift away from animal products towards plants, something that is likely to be met with stiff resistance.

The Swiss vote on energy is on Sunday 21 May 2017.

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