Electricity consumption in Switzerland is on the rise. More energy-efficient technologies alone are not enough to reverse the trend. What is needed are models, incentives and a change in thinking. An interview with Christian Schaffner, Director of the Energy Science Center (ESC) at ETH Zurich, about Switzerland’s energy future.
Electricity is an indispensable part of everyday life. Where do you need the most electricity?
I live with my family in a rented flat, so our greatest electricity consumption is for cooking and washing. Since the building is heated with district heating and not with heat pumping technology, consumption is comparatively low. As far as mobility is concerned, I use an electric car from time to time, even if it’s not actually mine, and I often travel by train.
Where does Switzerland stand in terms of average per capita electricity consumption?
Switzerland ranks in the middle of the field in Europe in terms of average per capita electricity consumption. On the one hand, we don’t have such high electricity consumption as Norway, for example, where heating is almost exclusively electric. On the other hand, we have higher electricity consumption than southern countries such as Italy or Spain. On a global scale, we are, unsurprisingly, a large consumer of electricity on a per capita basis. The per capita value is an average value.
Who are the main consumers in Switzerland?
If we look at the main consumers in detail, firstly there are households with washing, cooking, heating and hot water supplies. Second comes industry, which is a large consumer of process energy – for example for drives and automation – and in some cases also for heat treatment, along with the service industry. Agriculture and public transport should also be mentioned, although these account for a rather small share.
Switzerland ranks in the middle of the field in Europe in terms of average per capita electricity consumption.
How will electricity consumption change?
In the future, electricity consumption will increase due to decarbonisation, i.e. the move away from fossil fuels. The strong drivers here are electromobility and the electrification of heat supplies, especially heat pumping technology. This can save a lot of fossil energy, so that less energy is needed overall, but more electricity. The trend clearly suggests that households and transport will be electrified to a greater extent and more quickly than industry.
What are the reasons for this?
There are clear efficiency improvements in both areas, for example in lighting thanks to LED or in refrigerators. A great deal is also being done in industrial processes to ensure that less electricity is required for the same output and service. Nevertheless, electromobility and heat pumping technology are already causing an increase, which means that electricity consumption in Switzerland – especially by households – will tend to rise overall.
What does this mean for the energy transition? Is Switzerland on track?
With the federal government’s Energy Strategy 2050, we are seeing a significant overall reduction in consumption of electricity in Switzerland. This reduction is achieved in particular thanks to more efficient technologies. On the one hand, there is the electric motor, which is much more efficient than the combustion motor, and on the other hand, there is heat pumping technology in the building sector. Heat pumping technology can produce several times more heat with one unit of electricity than conventional heating systems. As already mentioned, this means in other words that we will need less energy, but more electricity.
Doesn’t this make Switzerland even more dependent on other countries?
If you look at the energy sector as a whole, we are currently very dependent on foreign countries. After all, all fossil fuels are imported from abroad. As far as electricity is concerned, production and consumption are roughly at the same level over the year. But we already exchange large volumes of electricity with other countries – in winter we import large quantities, while in summer we export. If we import fewer fossil fuels, we will have less dependence on foreign countries overall. Nevertheless, even with a greater weighting on electricity, it is vital for us to maintain good relations with the surrounding countries.
With the federal government’s Energy Strategy 2050, we are seeing a significant overall reduction in consumption of electricity in Switzerland.
What can be done to reduce electricity consumption?
It’s very important for us to address the question of efficiency everywhere we use electricity. In the household sector, this can be achieved partly with the help of new technologies. In industry, we have to look very closely at the processes, because there is still a lot of potential for optimisation. Another important distinction is that electricity is not only about the quantity, but also about the power that is available at a given time. For example, not all electric cars should be charged at the same time, but the charging times should be distributed as intelligently as possible. This corresponds to the principle of smart grids. Another important measure is bidirectional charging. This means that the batteries and energy of electric vehicles are used for a short time so that the electricity system remains more stable.
What incentives do people need to actually reduce electricity consumption?
In the industrial sector, role models are important to show what is possible. In general, there is more and more pressure in industry to become CO₂-neutral and to pay attention to the type of electricity that is used. In the private sector, incentives to save electricity are almost always linked to certain regulations, such as efficiency regulations or bans on light bulbs, as these have a far greater effect than the price.
Couldn’t reducing consumption be a greater lever than expanding production capacities to meet the challenges of the energy transition?
Ultimately, we need to do everything we can. In other words, we must produce more renewable electricity to cover the increased demand. At the same time, we need to increase efficiency wherever possible. Another important factor that is still talked about too rarely today is energy sufficiency. This means that we consider how much mobility we need and whether there are ways to reduce it. Or to what extent we can make efforts to reduce energy when it comes to heating as well. Sufficiency also plays an important role in regional planning – how do we organise our cities, villages and landscapes? Do we plan them in such a way that we need fewer transport routes, and fewer heated areas?
What role will technology play in reducing electricity consumption?
There are a large number developments in this area, but it is very rare that technologies emerge that can solve the majority of problems within a few years. But there are breakover points, as is currently the case with electromobility. Electric motors are now about as expensive as combustion motors. In a few years, the momentum will shift even more towards electric motors, creating another big lever. The central point is that intelligent regulation will continue to be required to enable new technologies to emerge. There is certainly still some need for action in this respect. More consumption means more electricity that has to be transported to the consumers.
Can today’s grids manage this?
Switzerland’s grids are of a very high standard and are also very well connected internationally. The transmission grid is very well developed, and we are in a comfortable situation regarding the distribution grid, especially in the urban area. But if you look to the future, there are neuralgic points at all levels. In the transmission grid, there are certain nodes, transformers and lines that are already at their capacity limits today and need to be expanded. Let’s not forget that in addition to transport, the intelligent distribution of electricity also plays an important role and that there are still many unanswered questions in this regard. What is certain is that bidirectional exchange, even between transmission and distribution grids, and the associated communication, must be further expanded and intensified.
It is very rare that technologies emerge that can solve the majority of problems within a few years.