On Sunday, 58 percent of the Swiss voted for the proposed Energy Strategy 2050. Starting in 2018, when the law takes effect, Switzerland will begin a nuclear phaseout and a transition to renewables – although the country already has nearly carbon-free electricity supply. Craig Morris takes a look.
Back in 2011, six weeks after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Swiss parliamentarian Doris Leuthard of the Christian Democrat People’s Party (CVP) presented her ideas for a Swiss energy strategy (in German). Six years later, the Swiss have voted for the plan that took shape during those years.
In 2015, nuclear power made up a third of electricity supply in Switzerland along with 35 percent hydropower from storage dams and 25 percent run-of-river hydropower. The Swiss thus have more than 98 percent low-carbon energy on their grid already if we throw in 4.3 percent non-hydro renewables. The remaining two percent is oil and gas in cogeneration. Outside the cement sector, the Swiss use almost no coal.
Only last year, a referendum found that a majority of Swiss voters did not want the ambitious phaseout plan proposed by the Greens, which would have closed the last reactors in 2029. Now, the country aims to do away with that 33 percent share of nuclear and replace it with more renewables. There is no strict phaseout plan, however. Rather, the reactors can continue running as long as the authorities find them to be safe enough for operation, but there will be no new nuclear plants in Switzerland. In 2019, the reactor in Mühleberg is, however, likely to be closed. Beznau 1, the oldest reactor in the world still technically in operation, has been offline for the past two years for safety reasons.
Outside the power sector, Energy Strategy 2050 aims to reduce consumption, with a target of cutting per-capita demand by 43 percent relative to 2000 by 2035. This goal will almost certainly not be met in such a short time frame, and the mere 47-page law lacks details about this strategy and a few other things. But the plan does set aside some 400 million euros annually for building renovation. For mobility, however, the plan for car emissions is merely in line with EU regulations. The same day, citizens of Basel rejected plans for a bike lane surrounding the center of Basel (in German).
To pay for Energy Strategy 2050, the “eco-power levy” is to double to roughly 2 cents per kilowatt hour. The total impact on households is to stay within 40 Swiss francs (around 37 euros) per year.
Critics warn that Switzerland might not only have to pay more, but also import dirtier power from neighboring countries, especially Germany. (Foreign demand for German power only increases the demand for electricity from fossil fuel because nuclear reactors already run full blast whenever possible and renewable energy already has priority dispatch.) Indeed, Leuthard herself said as much when opposing the Greens’ nuclear phaseout proposal last year (in German).
One main critic of the Swiss plan came from Germany: former top SPD politician Otto Schily, one of forty cosigners of the 2010 Energy Policy Appeal (in German), which stated that “Germany still needs nuclear and coal.” This time, Schily wrote a letter to the head of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which opposed Energy Strategy 2050, claiming that Germany’s energy transition is an “economic, financial, ecological, social, and climate-policy disaster.” However, the legacy cost impact of the Energiewende is hard to transfer to other countries; Germany built wind and solar when it was still expensive in order to bring costs down for the world.
This letter is hilarious, worth learning German for. Tip: Germany installed PV at 35 cents. It now costs 5 cents. Don't worry, go renewable. https://t.co/ePSzGOgl1K
— Craig Morris (@PPchef) May 22, 2017
The real test will come when the plan has to be implemented. How will the Swiss react when they see that their per-capita energy demand will not nearly reach the 43 percent reduction target by 2035? The cantons with nuclear stations voted against the plan; how will they react when wind turbines are to be built nearby (remember: wind turbines are not invisible)? Can the Swiss afford to subsidize their struggling hydropower long enough for it to become a “battery” for excess wind and solar from Italy and Germany? And the Swiss market is not fully liberalized; plans to do so were quashed last year (in German). Will costs be fairly distributed, or will small ratepayers subsidize large consumers as in Germany – even though the market there is liberalized?
Despite all this unclarity, one thing is clear: the Swiss referendum is a giant nail in nuclear power’s global coffin. If there ever was a country that proved nuclear is a pillar of low-carbon power supply, it was Switzerland. And the Swiss don’t want it.