Swissgrid is responsible for the project planning for and implementation of transmission lines. The Swiss government’s approval procedure, which consists of six phases, must be complied with. The concerns of the various stakeholders play a key role in this procedure, and it gives a number of players the opportunity to provide their input. At the end of the procedure, the authorities decide on the corridor and technology that will be used to construct a line.
In the preliminary phase of every grid project, Swissgrid develops various underground cable and overhead line corridors for the territory in which the line is planned. Swissgrid and the cantons affected by the project conclude a coordination agreement. This agreement ensures that the interests of the cantons are incorporated into the planning process early on. The developed options and the application to include the project in the Swiss government’s sectoral plan provide the basis for commencing the approval procedure.
Transmission Lines sectoral plan (SÜL)
The Transmission Lines sectoral plan (SÜL) is an overlying Swiss federal government planning and coordination instrument for the expansion and further development of transmission lines. The two-stage procedure distinguishes between the planning territory and the corridor of the new line. A monitoring group appointed by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) with representatives of the Swiss government, cantons, environmental protection organisations and Swissgrid discusses the proposed options and submits a recommendation. The Swiss government’s evaluation plan for the transmission lines plays a key role in this respect. Regional development, the environment and economic viability are factors which are taken into consideration in addition to technical aspects. Affected parties may submit their comments during a public consultation. The Swiss Federal Council defines the planning territory, the corridor and the technology (underground cable or overhead line) for the future line.
In this phase, Swissgrid establishes the specific construction project as part of the planning corridor defined by the Swiss Federal Council. This involves the specification of the precise route, deadlines and costs and any necessary negotiations on transit rights. Swissgrid appoints a Project Advisory Council in order to take account of the concerns of the public and other stakeholders in the project planning. At the end of this third phase, Swissgrid submits a planning approval application for the relevant grid project to the competent authorities.
Planning approval procedure
After completing the project planning, Swissgrid submits the construction application, consisting of the planning approval dossier and an environmental impact report, to the Federal Inspectorate for Heavy Current Installations (ESTI). The project is subsequently made available for public inspection, at which stage those involved and affected can submit objections to ESTI. If the differences cannot be reconciled by ESTI, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy continues the negotiations. At the end of this phase, the authorities grant Swissgrid the construction permit or enact additional conditions that need to be considered during project planning.
Once the construction permit has been issued for the grid project, this decision can be opposed or appealed by authorities, associations or directly affected parties. The Federal Administrative Court and the Federal Supreme Court then decide on whether the rulings by the federal administration are lawful and whether the law was correctly applied to objections by affected parties. If the courts give their approval, construction can commence. If the complaint is upheld, the project goes back to the planning approval procedure (phase 4), or the sectoral plan process (phase 2) has to be restarted. The protracted legal proceedings mean that grid projects are frequently delayed.
After the final construction permit has been issued – and following tendering, bid review and awarding of the lots – the actual construction activities commence. The final easements are negotiated and the relevant contracts concluded. The grid project ends with the commissioning of the converted or newly constructed line and the dismantling of existing line sections that are no longer required.
Accelerating grid expansion
The period from the start of a project through to the commissioning of the relevant line is currently around 15 years. However, objections and court judgements at a late stage often lead to significant delays in projects – and they can take up to 30 years.
The modernisation of the grid infrastructure is critical for the success of the Swiss government’s energy strategy. However, grid expansion cannot keep pace with the expansion of renewable energies. What is more, structural congestion already exists in the transmission grid. Swissgrid needs to instruct power plants to limit their production on a regular basis. It is therefore vital that grid expansion is accelerated through efficient approval procedures. Swissgrid has defined all the grid projects that are essential for a secure and reliable Swiss transmission grid in the report «Strategic Grid 2025».
The Swiss government's sectoral plan process
The sectoral plan for transmission lines is the government’s overarching planning and coordination tool for the development and new construction of transmission lines (220 and 380 Kilovolt) and railway power lines (132 Kilovolt). The sectoral plan process is a regulatory process by way of which a line construction project is assessed from an area planning perspective, is reviewed in relationship with the existing and future utilizations as well as compatibility with the protected areas, and a planning corridor is defined.
Before the actual sectoral plan process can be launched, Swissgrid and the cantons involved conclude a coordination agreement. This guarantees that the interests of the cantons are incorporated into the planning at the earliest possible stage. The sectoral plan process starts with the submission of the application for inclusion in the sectoral plan for transmission lines (SÜL application) by Swissgrid, in which proposals for planning territories are put forward.
On the basis of the planning territory proposals made by Swissgrid in the SÜL application, the support group deployed by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) makes its recommendations. Within the planning territory, several corridor options should be possible.
Swissgrid draws up various corridor options within the defined planning territory. The support group then recommends one planning corridor using, if required, the «Evaluation Plan for Transmission Lines».
The government decides on both the planning territories and the planning corridor on the basis of the support group recommendations. The planning territories and the corridor are then set out in the sectoral plan based on these decisions. Within the planning corridor defined by the government, Swissgrid can then work out the concrete line routing during the detailed phase of the project, which follows the sectoral plan process.
Involvement options in the sectoral plan process
The support group is put together by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE). It provides assistance with the definition of the planning territories and with the definition of the planning corridor and makes recommendations.
The support group comprises representatives of the interested Swiss federal offices (ARE, SFOE, BAV, etc.) and of the ESTI, the ElCom, the cantonal authorities involved, organisations under private law (e.g. environmental protection organisations) and Swissgrid. Independent experts are also asked to assist where necessary.
Consultation and cooperation process in accordance with Art. 19 of the Area Planning Directive (RPV)
Prior to the relevant definitions being laid down by the government, any private person may issue a statement on the support group recommendations by way of the consultation and cooperation process.