Swiss referendum adopts energy transition with nuclear phaseout

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.

group of protesters by a nuclear plant on a sunny day

Protest against the Gösgen nuclear plant in 2010 (Photo by, edited, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

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.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.


  1. The one-off legacy cost to Germans of the Energiewende (more precisely, of the above-market renewable FITS of the first decade of the century) bears unerlining. France for instance can replace its ageing nuclear fleet with today’s wind and solar technology at 5€c/kwh or thereabouts. The high-cost component will be the needed pumped storage, if they want to avoid Russian gas. Hulot will need all his charm.

  2. heinbloed says

    Cheap electricity – thanks to RE “subsidies” are killing coal and gas power in Germany.
    The latest victim could be the eternal site Datteln (railway power 60 Hertz) which is supposed to open next year, ca. 10 years later than planned.
    They have sold their electricity 10 years ago at twice the price it costs nowadays. And now the purchasers don’t want it anymore:

    (in German)

    machine translation:

    Since 108 coal power plants have to close or upgrade expensively what woul price them out of the market

    and power prices show no sign of increase ( just the opposite: )
    and REs are getting cheaper by the week one wonders what coal power the politicians are planning for Switzerland …..

    It looks as if Germany could hit the 40% RE power target planned for 2020 now the 3rd month in consequence:
    (click on monthly in the grey column)


    for the next 7 day forecast.

  3. heinbloed says

    Cross border prices (transmission capacity) speak a clear language, German power transmission is 10 times as expensive than French power:

    If Switzerland was worried (or Herr Schily) how to import clean power then they could build more cables straight to France, saving the coal power in Germany. Which the French traders seem to buy ….
    A few more RE-power installations in France and Switzerland would be able to buy there as cheap as in Germany. The last coal power plant in France is supposed to close next year(?)

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