05.03.2020 | Renewable power as the key to our future

A climate-neutral Switzerland by 2050

With the Paris Convention, the global community made a clear commitment to limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees. Switzerland intends to make its contribution and become climate-neutral by the year 2050. Is that possible – and what does it mean for the power supply system of the future? An assessment by Nick Zepf, Head of Corporate Development.

At the Climate Conference in Paris at the end of 2015, the UN Member States resolved: All countries are obligated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With the agreement, average global warming in comparison to the pre-industrial age must be limited to less than 2 degrees centigrade, with the ultimate goal being a maximum temperature rise of 1.5 degrees centigrade.

Climate-neutral by 2050 –  a major challenge

A goal like the one set by the UN Member States is urgently needed in order to halt climate change as best possible. But where does Switzerland stand when it comes to the issue of climate?

In August 2019, the Swiss Federal Council decided that Switzerland must become climate-neutral by 2050. To this end, greenhouse gas emissions must be gradually reduced: By 20% until 2020, by 50% until 2030, and by 100% until 2050. This is an ambitious goal. In looking at final consumption per energy source, 77% of Switzerland's energy sources are CO2-based and would have to be replaced with climate neutral sources over the next 30 years. 

77% of Switzerland's energy must be replaced with CO2-free sources. This also includes nuclear energy which must be replaced when the nuclear power plants are decommissioned.

Although Switzerland’s electricity is already nearly CO2-free with nuclear and hydropower, this proportion only amounts to 25% of all energy sources: Fuels, gas, petroleum, etc. must be completely replaced. How will that happen?

"Electricity" as our biggest hope

The realisation of the government's ambitious target will require a rethinking on all levels. The highest precept here is energy efficiency as it has been set down in the Energy Strategy 2050.

Nick Zepf, Head of Corporate Development, on the possible solutions:

Nick, how can we become CO2-free?

Energy efficiency is the first key. When we talk about energy efficiency we always think of small improvements here and there. These have to be realised. But greater, more substantial energy efficiency improvements are also essential. New developments and their successful market introduction are necessary.

What, for example?

Building insulation (façades and windows) and heat pumps could save a great deal of energy. A house built in Minergie standard needs only 1/5 of the energy that would be required for an older building and only 1/2 of that required for a normal building. The Minergie Plus standard results in even greater energy savings. Twenty years ago this was a vision, today it’s reality. However, the standard is not always applied owing to economic reasons (unavailable capital). Another example in the lighting area – today LED is the standard. LED lighting uses only about 10-15% of the energy needed for a conventional light bulb. That's a substantial improvement.

Where can we reduce CO2 further?

Aside from energy efficiency, I see two major areas where we must save enormous amounts of CO2: Transportation and heating. In transportation we have to go with batteries (for smaller vehicles) or hydrogen (for lorries). This power must come from renewable energies. Governmental regulations are needed here. I hope that these regulations will be technology-neutral. In this case, the best technology would prevail, perhaps one that we are not yet familiar with. The second area is heat. I see a combination of heat pumps (primarily geothermal heat pumps) and photovoltaic systems. It's obvious to me that the transformation towards a low CO2 or CO2-free world will take place by means of electricity. Renewable power is the key for our future.

Does that mean that we will need more electricity overall in the future.

That's correct. Axpo has analysed this need and expects that by the year 2050 an additional 55 TWh will have to be added or replaced. That equals 88% of today's power consumption. Consumption comprises 18 TWh for heat (in the winter alone), 13 TWh for mobility, and 24 TWh to replace nuclear energy.

That's an ambitious plan. Overall, I see the greatest development potential for photovoltaics.

During the summer, Switzerland is already producing a power surplus – but we need more solutions for the winter power problem.

Yes, in winter Swiss production lags significantly behind demand. How we can transfer power surpluses generated in the summer to the winter by means of photovoltaics is still open. The construction possibilities for new reservoirs is limited. Among synthetic gases, hydrogen is the most efficient solution from today's perspective. However, even when considering cost digression, it will still be very expensive. This is because we must first transform summer electricity into hydrogen, then store it and turn it into electricity. That will require enormous investments and we lose some of the energy in every step of the process. Despite all the problems and costs we must point out: The summer to winter shift is the greatest challenge from today's perspective.

You say that the Federal Council's plan is ambitious. Do we really need it?

We do need it! Since industrialisation the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has risen exponentially. That’s a frightening development. Hence the government's goal is the right one. However, how we can become climate-neutral by the year 2050 is still open. The government must define a new energy strategy and the corresponding framework conditions as quickly as possible. Time is an important factor: Waiting will only make the challenges bigger – not smaller! 

As of the year 2000 the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere increased exponentially. Source: NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies
What is Axpo's and Switzerland's situation?

Switzerland is in a good position because in comparison to other countries we have a high proportion of renewable energies in the power mix. Furthermore, the technology level in Switzerland is high, and, in general, there is investment capital available. A key question is whether we will be able to use this advantage in a useful way. Targeted regulations will play a key role.

Axpo as a power company that is active along the entire value chain is certainly in a good situation. We must actively take advantage of this position.

Nick Zepf, Head of Corporate Development at Axpo "It's a mammoth challenge. Waiting will make it even bigger, not smaller."

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