Study sees potential for alpine solar power


Can Switzerland close the winter gap without relying on natural gas? A study by the Institute "Cultures of the Alps" and the AlpEnForCe Foundation has a clear answer.

In cooperation with the Alpine Energy Research Centre AlpEnForCe Foundation (Disentis/Mustér), the Uri Institute "Cultures of the Alps" at the University - under the direction of Dr. Ivo Schillig and Prof. Dr. Boris Previšić - has commissioned a broad-based interdisciplinary study. It is entitled "Alpine Current Now!". Three scientists and one researcher were invited to contribute their expertise based on their own research experience and knowledge. They investigated the question of whether Switzerland could close the so-called winter gap without having to rely on natural gas thanks to Alpine electricity.

The research team is made up of three energy specialists and one energy specialist. They calculated various scenarios for electricity production, electricity transmission and electricity consumption for Switzerland depending on the surrounding countries (Dr. Marius Schwarz, ETH Zurich). They further assessed the legal situation and the possibilities (Dr. Markus Schreiber, University of Lucerne), determined the appropriate political instruments in an international comparison (Dr. Léonore Hälg, formerly of ETH and ZHAW) and finally considered the most economically sensible approaches (Dr. Florian Egli, ETH Zurich). As much as the situation of security of supply is currently problematised, the study by AlpEnForCe and the Institute "Cultures of the Alps" clearly works out that thanks to alpine electricity, politics can open up new room for manoeuvre and free itself from a fossil path dependency, above all on natural gas.

"Hydropower has reached the ceiling".

Thus, the two editors of the study, Ivo Schillig and Boris Previšić, state right at the beginning of the publication that Switzerland must decisively tackle the decarbonisation of all areas of life. Decarbonisation in Switzerland means first and foremost the electrification of mobility, buildings and industry with renewable energy sources. In the short and medium term, solar and wind power make the most economic and ecological sense. "Hydropower has reached the ceiling, but continues to play an important role in the Alpine region," the editors affirm.

In the medium-term scenario for the period between 2030 and 2040, when the nuclear power plants are taken off the grid, the additional demand for energy could be covered by photovoltaics and wind. Here, the Central Plateau and the Alps each have their own responsibility for the whole of Switzerland: "Photovoltaic plants on the Central Plateau will take over the largest share." However, Alpine photovoltaic systems are crucial as a seasonal counterbalance. They note: "Since the settlement density in the high alpine region is minimal, open-space systems are necessary in addition to photovoltaics on facades, avalanche barriers and other infrastructures. Combined with water and wind, they open up interesting perspectives for mountain regions.

Politics can push the expansion of winter electricity production

Based on the current revision of the Energy Act, energy law specialist Markus Schreiber points out initial perspectives. Under current law, cantons and municipalities "already have the option of including photovoltaic systems in their guideline or utilisation plans". In view of the impact of ground-mounted systems on space and the environment, he recommends that they be legally "defined at the level of the structure plan". This would allow "larger photovoltaic systems on existing structures such as avalanche barriers" to be taken into account in the structure plan.

This results in a clear need for political action, as energy policy specialist Léonore Hälg notes in the study. It is necessary for parliament to declare itself in favour of an additional expansion of renewable winter electricity production and the corresponding financing: "Whether the funds needed for this come from an increase in the already existing grid surcharge or from a special winter surcharge is irrelevant here." In any case, additional revenues are needed "in order to significantly expand renewable winter electricity production and thus guarantee the quality of supply in Switzerland". The main beneficiaries would be cantons and municipalities in the mountain regions.

Alpine solar power guarantees security of supply thanks to sliding market premium

Marius Schwarz can confirm this from the perspective of his broad-based modelling: "In our scenarios, Alpine solar power in Switzerland is better suited for security of supply in the medium term than gas-to-power capacities." Interestingly, it is precisely alpine winter electricity that can reduce electricity imports more for the same overall system costs. The trump card again lies with the Alps, because an import reduction would be made possible in particular by pumped-storage power plants, "which regularly fill up reservoirs with Alpine electricity even in winter and then make the electricity available during critical hours when import possibilities are low".

But which path to this solution makes the most economic sense? Energy economist Florian Egli writes in the study that investment contributions - which is the focus of current Swiss support for renewable energy sources - make little sense for interested investors, "because they do not reduce the risk". Because there is sufficient capital available, a reduction in the investment requirement in the commercial sector is of little use. Instead, it would be more effective to eliminate the risk of uncertain future returns with an auctioned feed-in tariff, a so-called sliding market premium. In this way, the sliding market premium guarantees the energy producer a minimum price per kilowatt hour and enables long-term financial security.  

Alpine photovoltaic plants for a "far-sighted policy

The scenarios without Alpine photovoltaic plants, which Marius Schwarz calculates in this study, show "that a lack of a framework agreement with the EU and a resulting reduction in net transmission capacity by 70 percent would greatly reduce winter imports and demand could no longer be met every hour". Thus, the two editors Ivo Schillig and Boris Previšić conclude: "Solar plants in the Alpine region make an important contribution to achieving climate goals, to security of supply and investment, and open up the necessary room for manoeuvre for far-sighted policies".