22.11.2022 | Axpo launches solar offensive. Winter power from the Alps and the motorway

Solar power for over 300,000 Swiss households

Jeanette Schranz

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That sure went fast. In just one session, the Federal Parliament enacted urgent measures for higher power production in the winter. Fewer obstacles, speedier processes – especially for large-scale alpine solar plants. Axpo is ready. By the year 2030, the company intends to develop 1.2 gigawatts of solar power from large-scale alpine, ground-mounted and roof-top plants. Andelko Suker, Head of Photovoltaic Power Plants in the Axpo Group, explains the development plans and tells us what he would like from policy-makers in the medium term.

Andelko, in view of the impending power shortage during the winter, policy-makers have paved the way for the construction of large-scale, solar plants in the Alps. Is Axpo going to plaster our mountains with photovoltaic panels with the blessings of politics?

With the planned development of 1.2 gigawatts – of which over half coming from alpine solar power – we can supply over 300,000 households in Switzerland with clean electricity. As a result, we can make a valuable contribution to sustainable, reliable power supply, particularly during the winter. And with an expansion of about 600 MW in the mountains, we really can't talk about "plastering".

But what are the limits for the expansion of these types of plant?

One has to carefully balance interests between the fundamentally important commodity "reliable power supply" and environmental impact. The urgent target – as Axpo also sees it – foresees that consideration for nature and landscape continues to be upheld. In addition, an environmental impact assessment will still be required. PV plants will not be allowed everywhere in the future – for example not in natural habitats of national importance or bird sanctuaries.  

 

The legal provisions have been in force since the beginning of October and are valid until the end of 2025 or until 2 terawatt-hours of additional, annual total production have been developed. Does Axpo have concrete projects in mind?

Yes, we do. In the Grisons region of Tujetsch we are planning the construction of the NalpSolar facility. The project has been approved by the town and the planning process is well under way. The start of construction is foreseen in 2024. The plant should be in full operation by the fall of 2025.  

How big will it be?

A total of 30,000 modules will be installed on a surface of about eight hectares, which corresponds to the area of 12 football fields. The system will be connected to the plant at the Lai da Nalps reservoir. Thanks to the hydropower plant, the infrastructure already exists and topographical intervention is very limited and concentrated in one area.

What is the outlook for NalpSolar’s expected solar production in the winter? 

Excellent. We are building NalpSolar at an altitude of about 2000 metres. Above the fog line, alpine plants can produce about three times more power in the winter as opposed to plants in residential areas. This is due to higher solar radiation and the thinner atmosphere. In addition, the snow reflects the radiation. Thanks to lower temperatures, efficiency is higher.

What's the story with so-called bifacial solar modules?

These modules use the solar radiation from both sides and, hence, produce more energy than conventional modules. These types of panels will be used at NalpSolar. The solar modules will be installed on a steel frame a little over two metres above the ground and positioned at an angle of 75 degrees so that the panels remain free of snow.

Andelko Suker, Head of Photovoltaic Power Plants in the Axpo Group

With AlpinSolar in the Glarus Alps – the largest alpine solar plant in Switzerland – Axpo already gained experience with these types of installations. Have expectations been fulfilled?

Definitely. The plant, which Axpo realised together with the Industriellen Werken Basel (IWB), has been in full operation since the end of August 2022. It produces 3.3 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year – half of this volume in the winter. The plant not only fulfilled out expectations. We also gained a great deal of know-how during realisation which we can now use for future projects.

Do these plants pay off?

Over the total service life – we're talking about approx. 25 years – we certainly expect that these plants will be cost-effective. For example, we can conclude long-term power procurement contracts   for these plants with a defined average price. In return the customer can hedge higher the risk of power prices.

Are more alpine projects in the pipeline?

Yes, we are planning additional alpine ground-mounted plants throughout Switzerland. Here, we are dependent on finding suitable land. As a result, we are looking for additional terrain and have been in contact with landowners and municipalities.

However, Axpo will not concentrate solely on alpine plants...

That's right. They are a part of our solar offensive. The other part is PV plants in residential areas. The Swiss Parliament approved a solar roof obligation for new buildings with an area of over 300 square metres. Together with our subsidiary CKW, Axpo plans an expansion of 600 roof-top installations per year to be realised by CKW Building Technology.

Does Axpo see further potential in residential areas?

We will use the land around our substations. That's obvious for us as an electricity company. Overall, we expect a potential solar output of 2 megawatts for the first projecppe

Wouldn't PV plants along motorways also be interesting?

Yes, definitely. Particularly, when it comes to motorway rest areas with canopies, we can make a valuable contribution since our French subsidiary, Urbasolar, is a specialist in this area.

With the enactment of the urgent measures, policy-makers have created an important impulse for the construction of alpine plants. Is that enough?

In the short term, until the end of 2025, yes. In the medium to long term we need more viable framework conditions for the expansion of renewable power production. Fundamentally, large-scale solar plants now have approval potential outside building zones. However, for alpine PV plants, it would be better if possibilities were created so that ground-mounted plants - alpine and others - can be approved in regular procedures and no longer have to rely on exceptional approvals. In addition, it must be ensured that such projects are also economically viable. If they are not, an appropriate subsidy framework is needed.

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