Analysing Switzerland’s transition from nuclear power to renewable energy and energy conservation

It is a simple statement of fact that Germany today produces more solar and wind power than the entire projected electricity demand for Switzerland in 2050. What is possible in Germany should be manageable in Switzerland too. ………Conservation, greater efficiencies, alternative energy sources, the smart grid, and the introduction of new technologies mean that Switzerland should be readily able to find ways to replace the energy  lost by the closing of its existing nuclear power plants. 

Small country, big challenge: Switzerland’s upcoming transition to sustainable energy,Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 25 July 15 Dominic A. Notter

Switzerland has long met a good portion of its energy needs by using nuclear power. But in the wake of the accident at Fukushima, the country will have to turn elsewhere—while still remaining true to its history of self-sufficiency and energy independence. This effort is made more complicated by fears that one of its traditional energy sources, hydropower, may no longer be as reliable as in the past. But with a combination of energy conservation, greater efficiencies, alternative energy sources, the “smart grid,” and the introduction of new technologies currently on the drawing board, the country may readily be able to replace the energy lost by the closing of its existing nuclear power plants. And the loss of the snowpack and glaciers (due to climate change) may not be as dire for Switzerland’s hydropower as first anticipated…….

a nation of only 8 million people—a bit larger in population than the state of Massachusetts—has five nuclear power plants, making Switzerland one of the top seven nuclear-powered nations on the planet on a per capita basis (IAEA, 2014). (The nuclear power plant at Beznau, in the country’s far north, is the world’s oldest operating nuclear power plant.) All told, nine percent of Switzerland’s total energy demand is met by nuclear power—a figure triple that of the United States (World Nuclear Association, 2015a).

Another telling statistic is that nearly 40 percent of Swiss electrical generation comes from nuclear power (see Figure 1) [in original] . To give a sense of what that proportion means, only 19 percent of US electricity is generated from nuclear power (World Nuclear Association, 2015b). …….

Rising discontent

But the old status quo regarding Switzerland’s nuclear power plants will not hold. There has been increasing public resistance to nuclear power in Switzerland over time, starting with a loss-of-coolant accident in 1969 at a small pilot test reactor in the village of Lucens. Though largely overlooked by the outside world, the event did cause a partial core meltdown (, 2003World Nuclear Association, 2015a). There were no fatalities and the underground cave housing the facility was successfully sealed up (Britt, 2013) but the incident planted discontent……..

shut down they will be, because the groundswell of public opinion against nuclear energy is having a powerful effect. Perhaps in response to continuing public concern, on October 27, 2014 the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health began distributing iodide tablets to everyone who lives within 31 miles of a nuclear power plant in Switzerland, an endeavor that would include 4.6 million people—more than half the country’s population. The idea behind the program is that if a disaster happened that involved the release of radiation, people living downwind could quickly saturate their thyroid glands with normal iodine and prevent the absorption of any harmful radioactive iodine. Critics call such “pre-distributing” a drop in the bucket; others suggest it would be more effective to limit the consumption of milk, cheese, cream, and yogurt after a nuclear accident (Bosley and Bennett, 2014)—not a popular idea in a country known for its dairy industry…….

An ambitious vision

With so many forces pulling in different directions, the government launched several large-scale research projects in recent years including the Swiss Competence Centers for Energy Research, known as SCCER CREST (, to plan for the future.

Each center has a different focus; one investigates scientific and technological aspects of changes in energy while another studies social, economic, and regulatory aspects.

These centers have seven “action areas”: energy efficiency; electrical grids; energy storage; power supplies; economy, environment, law, and behavior; mobility; and biomass.

The goal is to gradually phase out of nuclear power and into renewables by 2034 and to be largely independent of fossil fuels. Reaching it is based upon the idea of combining highly efficient energy production processes with substantial reductions in energy consumption.

Optimistic scenarios show that the amount of carbon produced per person could be reduced from the current 5.7 tons of carbon dioxide to about 1 to 1.5 tons.

In Switzerland, energy consumption per capita has already been decreasing in a moderate way since 1990 (Swiss Statistics, 2015). To hit the target, average energy consumption needs to drop by about another 30 to 40 percent by the year 2050 when Switzerland’s electricity consumption is expected to be about 60 terawatt hours (TWh), or 60 billion kilowatt hours (kWh)……….

At first glance, these may seem like impossibly large numbers of solar cells and wind turbines; however, Germany already gets 30 TWh from photovoltaics and another 45 TWh from wind power (Burger, 2014). These figures far exceed the projected Swiss electrical demand for 2050.

In addition, there is enormous potential for electricity savings in all the appliances and gadgets circulating today. In assessing the potential for electricity savings in households and industry, the Swiss Energy Foundation found that more than 25 TWh could be saved if all inefficient, energy-hungry old devices were replaced with best available new technology (SAFE, 2015). This includes better, more efficient lighting, such as compact fluorescents and light-emitting diodes; more energy-efficient computers, printers, and communications devices; improved electrical motors in industry; more efficient electric baseboard heating units and hot water heaters; and improved building services, to name a few.

If Switzerland exploited all the potential in energy efficiency, the amount of electricity saved would equal all the electricity produced from all nuclear power plants in Switzerland in 2013.

What’s more, there is a basic, fundamental, major change to the electrical grid that occurs when electricity production is switched from a small number of large nuclear power plants to a large number of small-scale plants that use renewable sources. While it will take a huge amount of money to renovate the grid—about 18 billion Swiss francs, or roughly 18.6 billion US dollars as of April 2015—there is a substantial amount of money and energy to be saved in such a complete, top-to-bottom overhaul, due to the fact that the present Swiss grid is out-of-date and inefficient. Rather than being perceived as a burden, the process of such “decentralization” should be looked at for what it truly is: an opportunity.

Renovation of the electricity grid would allow for installing new technologies such as the “smart grid”—which uses information and communications technology to collect information about the behavior of suppliers and consumers which is then automatically used to improve the efficiency of the production and distribution of electricity………..

Last but not least, with subsidies and bonuses the electricity producers could be rewarded for making their customers more energy-efficient, which would undoubtedly lead to more efficient products—an approach that the Swiss Federal Council recently approved (Swiss Federal Council, 2012)…..

The outlook ahead

Over the next four decades, Switzerland will face a huge restructuring of its entire energy supply system. The new supply mix will be free from nuclear power, rather low in carbon intensity, and resting upon much higher efficiencies based on the newest and most energy-efficient technologies—along with the development of smart grids, decentralized power suppliers, hydropower, wind power, photovoltaics, biomass, wood, and the rigorous use of burning waste to generate energy whenever materials cannot be recycled. In case of a shortfall of electricity, natural gas-powered, combined heat and power plants may be used as an intermittent alternative………

It is a simple statement of fact that Germany today produces more solar and wind power than the entire projected electricity demand for Switzerland in 2050. What is possible in Germany should be manageable in Switzerland too. ………Conservation, greater efficiencies, alternative energy sources, the smart grid, and the introduction of new technologies mean that Switzerland should be readily able to find ways to replace the energy  lost by the closing of its existing nuclear power plants.


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