The development of the Swiss energy supply since 1800 – Part 2

Crude oil – curse or blessing?

Author: Giulia Ferraro


After looking at the beginnings of the Swiss energy supply in our last blog post, now we are taking a step further in our journey through time. Crude oil has been used in Switzerland since the end of the 19th century. Again, Switzerland has always been dependent on foreign countries for this raw material. The oil boom came in the 1950s. Some historians even refer to these years as the dawn of a new era.

The 1950s syndrome

In the 1950s, there was a worldwide boom not only in population, but also in GDP and energy consumption. The population evolved into a consumer society. That is why these years are also known as the «1950s syndrome» or the «Great Acceleration». Prosperity increased and a process of democratisation took place in the Western countries. The stock of fossil fuels was large, as was their availability on the market. The prices for crude oil were therefore low. In the late 19th century, several large oil companies dominated the continental European oil market. There were also occasional free importers, who were in competition with each other. The end of the Suez Crisis in 1956, which meant the renewed passage of ships through the Suez Canal, also helped to lower the price of oil. The consumption of oil really skyrocketed due to the production of the combustion motor.

During the same period, the use of wood and coal declined sharply. In 1950, these two energy sources covered 55% of the energy demand in Switzerland – by 1970 it was only 5%

 
Black gold on the road

The combustion motor was first produced around the middle of the 19th century. The use of the combustion motor requires large amounts of petroleum, which is then converted into kinetic energy. In Europe, cars with internal combustion engines became a product suitable for the masses in the 1950s, with even the working classes able to afford them. Black gold was also used for tractors and ships. Thus, oil consumption increased in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the first oil refinery was built in Switzerland. Around 1970, there were two million cars on the road in Switzerland and 70% of the houses were heated with fuel oil – petroleum was gobbled up en masse. During the same period, the use of wood and coal declined sharply. In 1950, these two energy sources covered 55% of the energy demand in Switzerland – by 1970 it was only 5%.

The oil price crisis

Oil did not always remain so affordable. In October 1973, the price rose sharply. This period went down in history as the oil price crisis. Due to the war between Egypt and Israel, Arab oil exporters decreased production and ordered supply boycotts. Prices rose due to the low supply of crude oil. Due to the new situation, the non-supplied countries had to make adjustments, some of which still exist today. New technologies such as drilling rigs, oil pipeline laying and the use of diving robots emerged. In addition, individual governments called on the population to cut down. Since the oil price crisis, a strategic oil reserve has been mandatory in many countries. This is intended to bridge any supply bottlenecks. In Switzerland, this reserve is held in the form of petrol, diesel, aviation fuel and heating oil and should cover about four months of oil demand. Another measure was the search for alternatives to oil. One of them was nuclear power.

After nine ballots on the subject in Switzerland, the final decision in 2017 was made not to build any new nuclear power plants. But how did we come to this decision?


Author

Giulia Ferraro

Working student


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