To successfully develop the Swiss electricity grid, all the partners in the system need to work together, including the cantons. This currently takes place mainly via the regional grid operators and, as far as the sectoral plan for transmission lines is concerned, via the monitoring group. In an expert interview, Stephan Attiger and Marc Vogel discuss how the cantons could exert even more influence on grid projects and help accelerate them in the future.
Stephan Attiger, the canton of Aargau is regarded as an energy canton. In your capacity as Aargau’s Director of Energy, to what extent are you involved in managing the grid?
Stephan Attiger: The grid operators are responsible for ensuring a secure, powerful and efficient grid. As Director of Energy, I investigate what the future energy system might look like, what challenges the grid will have to overcome, and where the grid is reaching its limits. In the not too distant future, we will lose significant production capacities as nuclear power stations are decommissioned. New, but much smaller and decentralised production plants are emerging, especially solar plants. We must also consider the interplay between storage and consumption. We need grid-friendly solutions that allow us to flexibly manage surpluses and deficits in the grid. Electric vehicles are one of several possible solutions.
What are your requirements for the grid of the future?
Stephan Attiger: There is no doubt that security of supply is the top priority. For me, this means two things. Firstly, that the individual grid elements must meet the requirements for the future supply of electricity. And secondly, that system reliability needs to be improved. Furthermore, I believe that the focus should be on the decentralisation of the supply of electricity, as mentioned before, and therefore also on bidirectionality: in the future, electricity must be able to flow through the grid in both directions. Our current grid is not yet ready for this. This is necessary if, for example, significantly more electricity is generated in a decentralised manner in the future than is consumed today. But there are a few initial steps we can take towards a smart grid. With the roll-out of smart electricity meters, in the canton of Aargau we are well on the way to harnessing flexibility in the grid.
How can the cantons exert an influence to make sure that the grid will develop in the desired direction and that the energy transition will succeed?
Stephan Attiger: The cantons only have limited possibilities to exert a direct influence. This is because the grid operators are responsible for the grid and its further development. As a canton, we can only set guidelines via our shareholdings in the grid operators, via the owner strategy for Axpo and AEW. As far as the transmission system is concerned, grid development is planned by Swissgrid and reviewed by ElCom. There are specially designed participation processes, monitoring groups and consultations that the cantons are involved in. Within the scope of its possibilities, our canton is strongly committed to ensuring targeted, sustainable and balanced grid development.
Marc Vogel: The scenario framework, which is adopted by the Federal Council, forms the basis for the planning process for the transmission system. Scenarios for the energy supply of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow are necessary to simulate future load flows on power lines, taking different assumptions into account. This makes it possible to identify congestion and the need for grid projects. The scenario framework is prepared under the direction of the Swiss Federal Office of Energy. As mentioned by Stephan Attiger, all the parties concerned can participate. It seems important to me that the cantons exert even more influence in the preparation of the next scenario framework and coordinate effectively with each other. If their cantonal positions and goals are heard, this will ensure that the sum of the 26 energy strategies of the cantons roughly corresponds to the national strategy of the Confederation. In addition, the grid operators will be given a clear signal about where in Switzerland which generation technologies will be expanded in which time frame, and where there will be more consumers, and what type of consumers there will be, in the future. In this way, the cantons can not only influence the scenario framework, but ultimately also have a say in regional and local grid development.
Within the scope of its possibilities, our canton is strongly committed to ensuring targeted, sustainable and balanced grid development.Stephan Attiger
How are the cantons and Swissgrid already working together to plan the future grid?
Marc Vogel: Once the scenario framework has been prepared, the respective grid operators break down the national targets to their supply area. This process, carried out by Swissgrid in association with the distribution system operators directly connected to the transmission system, is called regionalisation. Until now, the cantons have only been indirectly involved as the owners of the distribution system operators.
Stephan Attiger: Today, coordination between Swissgrid and the cantons takes place either at Executive Board level or between technical experts, as required.
Marc Vogel: We determine the grid enhancement requirements as soon as we receive the regionalised data. If an existing line route needs to be reinforced or a new one is required, the federal government initiates a sectoral plan procedure. This involves specifically determining the technology, route and types of pylon. The cantons are involved in this process as part of a monitoring group. Today, all the electricity grid operators such as SBB, the distribution system operators and Swissgrid plan their grids separately, as do road and rail network operators. Potential for bundling grids and other synergies are often recognised too late and may not be fully harnessed. We see regional coordination of all infrastructure operators and authorities as an opportunity to plan and build infrastructure more efficiently in densely populated areas of Switzerland. We therefore suggest that Swissgrid should involve the cantons in the regional coordination process at an earlier stage.
We see regional coordination of all infrastructure operators and authorities as an opportunity to plan and build infrastructure more efficiently in densely populated areas of Switzerland.Marc Vogel
What could the regional coordination process look like?
Marc Vogel: This promising idea has been developed and successfully tested in the canton of Ticino over the last ten years. It allows grid infrastructure operators to present their grid expansion needs for the next decades to all relevant stakeholders. A jointly commissioned environmental or regional planner looks for a solution that satisfies the needs of the infrastructure operators and yet has as little impact as possible on the population, the environment and the landscape. Bundling potential is identified at the same time. Cantons and municipalities can defend their interests at this early stage. The variant chosen is the one that is considered the most sensible by all parties. This reduces the number of objections and, ideally, helps to speed up the approval processes. The Federal Office for Spatial Development has recommended that this approach should be applied throughout Switzerland. The concept has already been presented to the Conference of Cantonal Energy Directors (EnDK) and is to be elaborated in detail by experts from the cantons, the federal government and the grid operators.
The long approval procedures for grid projects are mainly due to objections. How can the cantons help to reduce the number of objections?
Stephan Attiger: In the canton of Aargau, we are very keen to take into account the interests of the population and of municipalities, and to address their reservations about such major projects. That is why we engage in dialogue with the people concerned. We must succeed in balancing national security of supply on the one hand and the interests of the population on the other.
Marc Vogel: By adopting the new procedure for defining corridors described above, the cantons could communicate clearly with the relevant municipalities to explain that they have examined different variants and decided on the most compatible solution. In the best-case scenario, this message would improve not only the cooperation of the municipal authorities, but also the understanding of the population. If the municipal council is seen to support a project, this establishes trust among the citizens of the municipality.
We must succeed in balancing national security of supply on the one hand and the interests of the population on the other.Stephan Attiger
In order to limit the costs of grid expansion, appeals are also made to the population: where possible, people should increasingly consume electricity when supply levels are high. How can grid-friendly behaviour like this be achieved?
Marc Vogel: There are already a large number of positive examples of grid-friendly behaviour. Among other things, self-consumption optimisation apps ensure that electric cars are charged and heat pumps run when the sun is shining and photovoltaic systems are generating electricity. This minimises electricity exchange with the grid and, as a result, reduces the need for grid expansion. People with similar ideas for saving energy should be given a platform on which to present and explain their solutions. The cantons could act as multipliers and communicators for good solutions, for example by providing information material. Municipalities could publish articles in their publications or even organise information events. The customer magazines of cantonal and local energy suppliers should also be used more for this type of communication.
Stephan Attiger: In my opinion, smart electricity meters are another success factor for ensuring grid-friendly behaviour. The consumption data from these meters could be displayed graphically on the customer portals or apps of energy suppliers – with the corresponding electricity costs. This would enable citizens to keep an eye on their energy consumption and costs, and encourage them to optimise their electricity consumption behaviour and purchase more efficient appliances.