26.04.2024 | Nature and landscape conservation are not being compromised

The electricity law – putting a key argument of its opponents to the test

On 9  June, the Swiss people will vote on the new electricity law. At the time of its approval in parliament in September 2023, the bill enjoyed broad-based support. In January, however, a referendum was called against the legislation. Among other things, its opponents fear that nature and landscape conservation will be compromised. But after you take a look at the details, you realise that’s not the case. A fact check.


On 29  September 2023, parliament approved the most important legislative package relating to the supply of electricity in recent years in the form of the electricity law (consolidation bill). Following lengthy negotiations in parliament, the package was unambiguously approved in the final vote in the National Council with 177:19 votes and in the Council of States with 44:0 votes. On 18 January 2024, however, a referendum was called in opposition to the electricity law. The opponents believe that the bill jeopardises nature and landscape conservation, claiming that electricity production facilities would now have general priority over other environmental interests. However, a look at the details reveals a different picture.


Priority interests only in certain areas


According to the electricity law, renewable electricity production facilities only enjoy the status of a ‘fundamentally overarching interest’ if they are located in ‘suitable areas’ that are explicitly designated for this purpose by the cantons. As a result, there are two mechanisms that continue to ensure all interests are given equal consideration. Firstly, when defining suitable areas, the cantons must weigh up interests and rule out protected areas. Secondly, the overarching interest only applies in principle. In other words, individual cases are still considered, and other interests may still carry greater weight. 


Moreover, even in the case of a possible overarching interest, an approval procedure with rights of objection is still carried out. Given that the designation of protected areas means greater holistic planning at the cantonal level, however, it is possible to weigh up security of supply as a public good and various local interests more effectively.


The status of a fundamentally overarching interest is also granted to 16 hydropower projects that are set out in the annex to the law. These projects were selected at the ‘Hydropower Round Table’, a body appointed by the then energy minister, Simonetta Sommaruga (SP), and which is made up of representatives of the electricity industry, nature conservation and environmental associations, and the cantons. In this regard, the projects have already been weighed up against additional winter electricity and environmental compatibility. As part of bringing these projects to life, provision has also been made for additional alternative and compensatory measures with a view to nature conservation.


Allowing interests to be weighed up


With two further amendments, the electricity law seeks to improve the fundamental approval capability of electricity production facilities. Without these amendments, it would not be possible to weigh up interests at all.


Firstly, individual exceptions from the general prohibition on construction are established in certain protected areas. The prohibition on construction that is currently in force only applies to renewable energy installations, but not to other buildings, and leaves no scope at all for weighing up interests. The electricity act now seeks to approve specific exceptions – in particular, to pave the way for the projects of the Hydropower Round Table. However, the projects must nevertheless undergo an approval procedure with a corresponding weighing up of interests. 


Secondly, the electricity law defines prerequisites for the ‘site dependency’ of renewable energy installations. Site dependency is one of two criteria for the approval of an installation outside of construction areas, the second being successfully weighing up interests in favour of the installation. Particularly for solar plants, the site dependency criterion is not sensible and has so far been almost impossible to fulfil: as the sun shines everywhere, you could theoretically always build the plant at another site. With this logic, however, no plant would ever end up being built. In the definition of the prerequisites for site dependency, on the other hand, account has been taken of nature and landscape conservation. For example, a solar plant must be located in ‘less sensitive’ or already built-up areas, among other things. In the case of wind farms in the forest, significant protected areas are ruled out. Even if an installation is considered site-dependent, the successful weighing up of interests continues to apply as a second criterion.


A balanced compromise for greater security of supply


Looking at the details should clarify that parliament has not compromised nature and landscape protection, but rather achieved a balance between competing interests. 


The electricity law aims to allow a greater number of electricity production installations – largely on but also outside of existing infrastructure. Expansion of this kind is urgently needed with a view to Switzerland’s future security of supply. By 2050, we are predicted to need 50 TWh of additional electricity production per year – and as much of this as possible in winter. This is the only way to meet the rising demand for electricity due to electrification and to avoid an increasing dependence on imports. In this context, a mix of various technologies and installations, with corresponding differences in size, location and production profile, forms the basis for a secure and cost-effective supply of electricity. 

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