Electricity generation is undergoing fundamental change. Switzerland is in a good position with regard to renewable energies. However, faster expansion of production and storage capacities is needed. An interview with Michael Frank, Director of the Swiss Electricity Industry Association (VSE), about electricity generation now and in the future.
We consume electricity without thinking about where it comes from. What is the production mix like at the moment?
In Switzerland, we have the great advantage that our electricity generation is practically CO₂-free. Approximately 60% of the production mix is made up of renewable energies. Hydropower accounts for by far the largest share, while the other renewable energy resources still make up a small proportion. The rest of the production mix is based on nuclear power and a little fossil energy.
There have been a lot of reports about electricity shortages recently. What is the situation regarding our security of supply?
The lights won’t suddenly go out today or tomorrow. There are many reasons why electricity shortages will become a more realistic prospect in the future. Firstly, there is the lack of an electricity agreement with the EU, which has a negative impact on Switzerland’s ability to import. Secondly, our progress on expanding renewable resources is still far too slow. All this is happening against the backdrop of increasing electrification of mobility and heating in Switzerland. This means that, despite all the efficiency measures, we will need more electricity in the future, not less.
Is a self-sufficient supply of electricity conceivable for Switzerland?
If you look at the supply of electricity over the year as a whole, we would already be able to keep ourselves supplied. But electricity generation and consumption are not evenly distributed: in summer we export, whereas in winter we are dependent on imports – so self-sufficiency is not possible. It’s important to focus measures to strengthen our security of supply on the winter months. We need to reduce our dependence on imported electricity and have a power reserve of two to three weeks in our storage systems.
It’s important to focus measures to strengthen our security of supply on the winter months.
The future supply could represent a mixture of self-sufficiency and intelligent networking with Europe. How do you imagine this balancing act?
What I mean is that every kilowatt hour of renewable energy counts. In other words, it’s vital for us to achieve the highest possible share of renewable energy from domestic production. But even then, we are dependent on exchange with Europe. This should be as efficient and barrier-free as possible so that we, and Swissgrid in particular, can deal with our European partners on an equal footing. The goal must be an active mode in the form of a bilateral electricity agreement and not a blind and reactive mode, as is currently the case.
Where do you think electricity will come from in the future?
The superficial answer is: from power outlets. But it is now finally time to take a closer look behind the power outlet. The world of electricity is undergoing substantial change behind the scenes. We know that we will be shutting down domestic nuclear power plants in the foreseeable future and will have to compensate with additional renewable energy as quickly as possible. Energy efficiency – in the sense of non-production and non-consumption – will also play an important role in curbing increased demand. In order to keep the grids stable, flexible energy storage systems, ranging from batteries to reservoirs, will continue to gain in importance.
Do we need to adapt the grids?
The grids – both distribution and transmission – are not designed for decentralised production. This results in higher loads and greater volatility, and everything has to work in different directions. That’s why investments are needed in conversion and, where necessary, expansion. The grid must become smarter, because decentralisation is increasing rapidly, with a multitude of volatile small plants and of players on the producer and consumer side.
You mention smart grids. How is digitalisation changing the electricity industry?
Without digitalisation, it wouldn’t be possible to operate grids efficiently and control them intelligently, so that, for example, signals are sent immediately when there is a shortage or surplus. What’s more, digitalisation is also opening up new business areas for the electricity industry, such as in the building sector, where production, consumption and the grid are visibly shifting. Digitalisation is bringing about a democratisation of electricity generation. This is no longer the exclusive preserve of the big players.
Does that mean that anyone can become an electricity producer?
Yes, exactly – from consumer to prosumer. And this would have advantages. The associated decentralisation of electricity generation is leading to a growing power market. This is a comfortable starting position, because the cake is becoming visibly larger. At the same time, however, we are clearly dependent on decentralised electricity generation, because this means that more electricity is produced and the system can be stabilised. The bottom line is that we all benefit from decentralisation, whether we are small or large producers.
Looking to the «energy future», what are the biggest challenges for energy producers?
The industry is doing everything it can to ensure security of supply. It is investing in all viable projects to drive the expansion of renewable resources domestically. But an equal weighing of interests, as prescribed by the Energy Act, does not take place in reality: almost every project is blocked by special interests and fails due to procedures and objections. Unattractive framework conditions and low electricity prices were a toxic combination in the past. Nobody invests in a project that has to go through 20 years of approval procedures and is not profitable. More planning security and faster procedures are needed. Otherwise, we will be unable to cover the additional electricity requirements in the future.
With the expansion of renewable energies, electricity storage is becoming crucial. Where does Switzerland stand in this respect?
Electricity storage is one of the most central issues in the whole discussion: not only for grid stability, but also for security of supply. How do you carry over the electricity surplus from summer into winter, the period of electricity shortages? Once this problem has been solved, we can solve all the other problems. The better the storage options, the easier it will be to drive forward our energy strategy and decarbonisation.
Electricity storage is one of the most central issues in the whole discussion. Once this problem has been solved, we can solve all the other problems.