At 2.00 p.m. on 17 February 2023, Olivier Poncioni was feverishly standing at the foot of a pylon of the former Chamoson – Chippis extra-high-voltage line in Sion. After more than 70 years of loyal service, a ceramic insulator from the 1950s was about to be removed from its console by Swissgrid to join Mr Poncioni’s collection of electrical equipment in Neuchâtel. «Chamoson – Chippis has been the talk of the town for the past two decades, so it seemed only right that I should add a piece of this old line to my collection», he explains.
Olivier Poncioni, now 38, has been interested in electricity since he was a child. Everything began in the Onsernone Valley in Ticino, where his family is originally from. At the end of the 1970s, heavy rain hit the area and damaged the medium-voltage line that supplied the villages of Gresso and Vergeletto. A new power line was built, and the old family home, where the Poncioni family used to spend their holidays, found itself with an 18-metre metal mast just 60 metres away. Little Olivier was fascinated by this «big thing» made of metal, which he used to draw with great enthusiasm. He was so interested in the power line that when he was five years old, his father gave him an old yellow ceramic low-voltage insulator. This was the first item in a collection that now comprises several thousand items related to electrical energy: household appliances – more than 300 toasters manufactured all over Europe between 1905 and 1960 – lamps, insulators, electric cables, fuses, meters, switches, sockets and light bulbs, etc.
Olivier Poncioni has turned his passion into his profession. After receiving a vocational school leaving certificate, he worked as an electrical mechanic for a few years before abandoning the profession in order to obtain a federal diploma. From 2007 to 2011, he studied at the ECAL (Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne) and in 2011, he went on to study history and history of art at the University of Neuchâtel, the year in which he opened his shop for the restoration and sale of vintage electrical lighting in Neuchâtel.
The 1950s ceramic insulator from the former Chamoson – Chippis line, which is 2 metres long and weighs almost 75 kg, will not be the oldest piece in his collection by far. A French telegraph insulator, dating from 1853 – 1858, shares pride of place with a Swiss glass telegraph insulator from 1865 – 1875. No matter – Olivier Poncioni does not intend to stop there. He just hopes that his collection will survive him. In the distant future, he would like to see it be handed over to a Swiss museum dedicated to Switzerland’s role as an electricity pioneer, where everyone will be able to admire his objects.
The old Chamoson – Chippis line will soon disappear from the Valais landscape. The first section between the Chamoson substation and Sion / Les Îles has already been dismantled to allow the construction of the new line. The dismantling of the last section, from Sion / Les Îles to the Chippis substation, will begin in August 2023. By the end of March 2024, 56 masts and 130.2 km of conductor cables will have been sent for recycling, representing more than 494 tonnes of metal.
This old line no longer had the capacity to transport all the energy produced by the Valais power stations. It has been replaced by Swissgrid’s new Chamoson – Chippis extra-high-voltage line, which has been helping to ensure that the electricity generated in the Valais is transmitted smoothly to the consumption centres in central Switzerland since 30 September 2022. This is an important step for Switzerland, as the development of the electricity transmission system as well as hydropower play a key role in the energy transition.
The old Chamoson – Chippis extra-high-voltage line will soon be a memory. All that will remain of it are photographs and an insulator, which Swissgrid hopes will enjoy a long life in the collection of M. Poncioni.