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28.05.2024 | Axpo’s Head Wind on the electricity law, wind power and its opponents

Wind power opponents on the electricity law: the flop 5

With the referendum on the electricity act coming up on 9 June, emotions are running high – and wind power is one particular sticking point. Cédric Aubert, Head Wind Development Switzerland, runs through the five biggest fallacies of wind power opponents and the impact of the electricity law. One undeniable fact: the principles of wind power were set in the 2017 energy strategy – but it’s not the focus of the new electricity act.

In just a few weeks, Swiss voters will decide on the Federal Act on a Secure Electricity Supply from Renewable Energy Sources. Parliament adopted the bill with an overwhelming majority in the final vote. A handful of small agricultural and environmental protection groups raised the referendum, supported by the national SVP.

It was wind power that attracted particular opposition, although it only represents a small part of the bill. Let’s look at the five biggest fallacies:

 

Flop 1: Switzerland isn’t a windy country

The latest wind turbines allow for significantly greater production of wind power – ten times more per turbine than just 25 years ago. Modern wind turbines can generate electricity efficiently at wind speeds of 5 m/s, where earlier models required a minimum of 7 m/s. So it is worth to operate wind farms in Switzerland. As the map below shows: Switzerland is a windy country! 

Quelle: Schlussbericht zum Windpotenzial Schweiz (BFE, 24.08.2022)
Flop 2: The whole of Switzerland will be ‘plastered’ with 9,000 wind turbines

Switzerland doesn’t need 9,000 wind turbines. First, that would be unacceptable to our society and second, that amount of wind turbines would generate electricity equivalent to seven or eight nuclear power plants such as Leibstadt. This would be the figure if the expansion of renewable energies were achieved solely through wind power. But no one wants that. In the reference model from the PowerSwitcher electricity calculator, we are assuming around 6 TWh of electricity by 2050. Energy Minister Albert Rösti expects an additional 1–2 TWh of wind energy by 2035 and estimates that this would require construction of 200 wind turbines. This would still be fewer than, for example, Austria has already (around 1,400).

 
Flop 3: Wind farms cause enormous damage to natural settings and landscapes; they require areas to be cleared, concrete anchoring and access roads

A certain impact on nature is unavoidable. However, the electricity law is designed to only allow construction in locations that are already encumbered. Even without the electricity law, cantons need to define suitable locations for wind power, taking nature preservation interests into account. In forests, for instance, only areas with existing road infrastructure are considered. 

Auf diesem schmalen, unbetonierten Weg wurde die mehrere Tonnen schwere Windturbine vom Windpark Verenafohren transportiert

The electricity law also says that the greatest protection must be extended to landscapes defined as biotopes of national significance. Power plants are generally banned in these areas. There are a few exceptions with strict conditions for hydropower, but not for wind farms or solar power parks.

A study of the Verenafohren wind farm in Germany, close to the border around Schaffhausen, shows that the clearing created there has increased biodiversity – clearings are ‘biodiverse habitats on the edge of the forest’.

What’s more: all anthills were carefully removed by wheelbarrow before the turbine was erected, and put back again once work was complete.

 

Flop 4: Wind turbines can easily be replaced or prevented by photovoltaics on buildings and infrastructure

The expansion of photovoltaic installations on existing infrastructure and roofs is important and sensible, but it still isn’t enough to secure electricity supply, particularly in winter. Cloudy days with strong wind, night-time when it can be windy but never sunny – clearly, photovoltaics can’t supply electricity around the clock. Here wind power makes an ideal complement to photovoltaics, particularly in the winter months, when they produce two thirds of their output. It’s not a question of playing one against the other, it’s about combining technologies.

Produktionsprofile Wasserkraft, Wind, Solar
Schweiz 2017 - 2018 (% der Jahresproduktion)
 
Flop 5: Wind power kills birds

These days, radars can detect large flocks of birds in flight and stop the turbines turning. So birds are no longer an issue. Bats can be a problem at times, specifically at dusk when the insects come out. But here, too, the rotors stop turning. And this tends to happen in July and August, when wind energy is less important anyway. By comparison: according to estimates from the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, 36 million birds are killed each year in Switzerland through human activity: around 30 million by pet cats, 5 million by collision with glass façades, and a further 1 million in traffic. With the tools available to us today, we can greatly reduce the number of birds killed through collision with wind turbines.

 
Wind energy is not at the heart of the electricity act

In 2017, the Energy Strategy 2050 set the parameters for wind power. The electricity law contains some changes that affect wind power, but the focus of the bill is on other areas of energy policy.

Wind turbines are already cleared for construction; the cantons have to define suitable areas for the production of renewable energies in their structural plans. However, these areas are only nominated after a comprehensive weighing up of interests with extensive public consultation. This ensures incremental, coordinated planning.

The new electricity act would simplify approval processes for wind turbines and access paths, but only where they are of national interest.

The referendum on 9 June is a key step for the energy transition, the protection of nature and the environment, energy efficiency, domestic electricity, winter electricity and the path to carbon-free electricity production.

It is also key to our credibility as an innovative, responsible country that cares for its future. 

Author: Cédric Aubert

Cédric Aubert is Head Wind Development Switzerland at Axpo, and his focus is on developing wind farms in Switzerland. He began his journey in the energy sector during his physics studies at EPFL – with topics including nuclear fusion, nuclear security, the energy business and renewables. He was head of the energy business division at ewz where he contributed greatly to the expansion of the wind portfolio. Prior to that, he served as Head of Market and Credit Risk Management at Axpo between 2007 and 2012.

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