09.03.2023 | Swiss wind energy: insignificant today – a pillar for reliable supply tomorrow
The potential of domestic wind energy has just recently been identified – and it looks very promising. Wind power can make a meaningful contribution in closing the winter electricity gap. Axpo's subsidiary CKW is planning the construction of 20 turbines in Switzerland and intends to involve residents as investors.
Today, there are only 41 wind turbines in Switzerland. They are located at six wind farms and five individual plants, and contribute less than 0.5 percent to the Swiss power mix. However, wind power has numerous advantages. It can be made available quickly, and most of all: It has the potential to close the winter electricity gap. Wind power occurs mainly during the winter months, and depending on the plant location, this amounts to up to two thirds of annual production, as indicated by the latest analyses from the year 2022.
"This is precisely the time when we need more electricity, e.g. for lighting and heating with heat pumps. At the same time, hydropower and solar energy deliver less electricity during the winter," says Axpo Energy Economist Lara Lück*. "With wind on one side and solar and hydropower on the other, we have a trio of renewable energies available that will complement each other for years to come.
In contrast to Switzerland, many European countries have been relying on wind power for some time – not just traditional "wind countries" such as Germany or Denmark. Austria, an alpine country like our own, generates 12 percent of its power mix with 1307 wind plants. The EU Member States generate an average of 16 per cent.
Proportion of wind energy in power production
The fact that Switzerland lags so far behind is not because wind power wouldn't have potential. On the contrary. Today, modern plants produce about three times more electricity than ten years ago. They are higher and the rotors much larger. As a result, they can generate more power per surface. In addition, the political framework has improved. Today, wind farms with an annual production of over 20 gigawatt-hours are of national interest.
In order to quantify the potential of wind energy in Switzerland, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) recently reviewed the figures. In calculations made in 2012, the potential until 2050 was estimated at about 4 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year. The current study, carried out on behalf of the government, indicates a much higher a wind power potential: Theoretically, this is nearly 30 TWh per year. If only 30 per cent of this were realised – which corresponds to some 1,000 plants – about 9 TWh of wind energy per year would make a decisive contribution to power supply in Switzerland. Our dependence on supply from foreign countries during the winter would be much lower.
There are enough suitable locations in Switzerland, spanning from the Jura to the Midlands, to the Prealps and Alps. However, objections and appeals are currently blocking the construction of wind plants –- and possible for years to come. The National Council Energy Commission (UREK) has taken action. In January, it launched a wind power offensive that will make the procedures for the construction of wind power plants much easier and advance the expansion of wind power – for as long as it takes to produce an additional TWh per year. That is nearly seven times more than today.
And more than welcome. Most importantly, the Federal Government and the Cantons are called upon to reserve suitable locations and areas for renewable energies in spatial planning processes, e.g. in sectoral, structure and cantonal utilisation plans, and to streamline the approval process through concentration, increased coordination and fixed deadlines.
"It's clear that wind energy is experiencing momentum. As a result, Axpo will adapt its own scenarios. We will assume a stronger expansion in our future scenario in the Axpo Power Switcher", says Lück.Axpo's pipeline is already well-filled. Six projects with 20 turbines are planned in Central Switzerland. They will be developed and built by Axpo's subsidiary CKW.
In order to simplify the construction of wind power plants in Switzerland, and hence, create more investment security, Lück suggests various approaches. One is to hedge the risks for wind power plants with power procurement contracts. At the moment, power prices are comparatively high. "However, if prices drop and stay at a low level for a longer period of time, this can have a negative effect on the profitability of the plants," she explains. Therefore, procurement contracts at fixed prices for a defined power volume are a way to enable the construction of wind farms without government subsidies.
Another approach, is to allow residents to participate in the investments. In return, they receive a portion of the revenues from wind power plants. Axpo has already realised this model abroad with its subsidiary Volkswind, which has been successfully developing and building large wind farms for many years. "Involving local residents as investors not only increases the acceptance of wind turbines, it also decreases the Axpo’s investment volume," Lück summarises. It's a win-win situation for all the parties.
Lara Lück is a Senior Energy Economist at Axpo and responsible for strategic energy-economic issues within the Axpo Group. She studied mechanical engineering and received her PhD in electrical engineering from the RWTH Aachen University with a focus on energy markets and power market analyses.