Energy transition in the Alps - what next?

Energy transition in the Alps - what next?

The solar express has to pick up speed quickly. The amendments to the Energy Act, which came into force on 1 April 2023, set the course for the provision of a secure electricity supply in winter and the decarbonisation of the energy supply. Fossil fuels are to be replaced by renewable energy sources. The approval process for large-scale photovoltaic systems will be simplified and generously subsidised by the federal government by covering up to 60 percent of the investment costs. The first systems are to feed their electricity into the public grid by the end of 2025.

It is clear where the large-scale PV systems should be located: in the Alps. This is because, in contrast to the neighbouring lowlands, they fill the notorious winter gap at high altitudes in winter. However, although there is a great deal of public awareness of the need to generate electricity from renewable energies, and therefore from alpine solar plants, a certain scepticism towards such projects cannot be overlooked. Unsurprisingly, the fear of being overrun by the solar express is particularly great in the affected regions. But interest groups such as nature conservation organisations are also taking notice and see the Alpine landscapes at risk.

Not least, these fears prompted the Uri Institute "Cultures of the Alps" to hold an internal workshop on 14 and 15 November to address the debate on the Alpine energy cultural landscape and the question of how to design an Alpine region committed to decarbonisation. According to the workshop organisers Jens Badura, Annina Boogen and Boris Previšić, the current debate surrounding the creation of solar parks in the Alps is based on a "conflict of objectives between the acute need to expand renewable energy production and the concern to protect nature and landscape, biodiversity and maintain the degree of 'wilderness'". A key aspect of this is the transformation of existing cultural landscapes characterised by agriculture and forestry, but since industrialisation also by infrastructure such as transit routes, hydroelectric power plants and tourism buildings, into Alpine energy cultural landscapes, which are "necessary for the extremely urgent decarbonisation". The debate clearly showed that the associated "transformation of the 'familiar' landscape" is causing a great deal of uncertainty.

Together with guests from the fields of natural science (Norman Backhaus, Urs Müller and Jürg Rohrer) and art history (Annemarie Bucher), processes of perception and representation of Alpine landscapes were scrutinised against the backdrop of the implementation of large-scale solar plants and the associated questions and controversies. Specifically, the workshop aimed to develop initial ideas and approaches through the participating expertise from various disciplines, which offer a constructive and future-orientated approach to the conflicts of use and objectives of an Alpine energy cultural landscape.

To ensure that the proposals and concepts to be developed do not move in a vacuum of pure thought, the workshop community sees it as its duty to participate directly in the planned solar projects with the expertise at its disposal. A project design has been outlined for two planned ground-mounted PV systems on the Bernina Pass. Initial contact has already been established with those involved on site. After all, we have been on the slow lane of fundamental debates for long enough; only a commitment to decarbonising the Swiss energy supply thanks to the Alpine region can set the course for the future.

Published on 15. November 2023