01.03.2023 | Politics and industry want faster expansion of PV, wind and hydropower

Expansion of renewables and nature protection? No contradiction

Martin Stutz

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The solar offensive, the wind offensive and the round table on hydropower have one thing in common: they want to enable a faster expansion of renewable energies. Not everyone is happy about this, especially environmental and landscape protection associations have reservations. However, there is no contradiction between legitimate conservation concerns and the expansion of renewable energies desired by politics and society - as long as this balancing of interests is done with a sense of proportion.

The current energy crisis has put energy issues high on the political agenda. With the round table on hydropower, the then Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga wanted to end the years-long blockade of hydropower projects at the end of 2021. The cantons, energy sector and associations agreed on a list of 15 hydropower projects that offer the best conditions both economically and ecologically.

With the solar offensive, the Council of States passed an urgent federal law in autumn 2022 which, among other things, enables the construction of large alpine photovoltaic plants in an accelerated procedure. Analogous to the solar offensive, a wind offensive is also in the political spotlight. Parliament is currently discussing a federal law for advanced wind power plants.

Too much of a good thing?

There is no question that after years of stubborn standstill and tiring blockades, regulation and energy policy have started to move. For some, this is going too fast or too far or both. Whether it's PV, wind or hydropower - environmental and landscape protection associations are resisting accelerated procedures and expansion projects. What they have in common is the fear that conservation concerns are at risk, especially when it comes to protected areas of national interest.

Implementation with a sense of proportion

These fears are unfounded. "If a sensible approach and common sense are applied to implementation, then we will find a good balance between ecological concerns and electricity production," said Axpo CEO Christoph Brand recently on Radio SRF's Saturday round-up. He added that there was no need to expand production in the landscapes most worthy of protection in Switzerland. "But then you also have to stop fighting projects in landscapes that are less worthy of protection."

Free pass for expansion? Not at all

What is now possible in landscapes worthy of special protection? Current law absolutely protects biotopes of national importance and strictly prohibits new plants for the generation of renewable energies in these areas. In its deliberations on the Energy and Electricity Supply Act (known as the "overarching decree"), the Council of States decided to relativise this absolute ban. However, it has by no means given a free pass to expansion projects in such areas, as some environmental protection organisations claim. What is new is that in a specific case, it is possible to weigh up the interests of protection and use - which is not possible at present. In view of the urgently needed expansion of renewable energies, this is to be welcomed.

What is needed, then, is a comprehensive weighing of all interests and no absolute prohibitions. Because this assessment leads to the projects with the least impact on the environment and the greatest benefit for renewable electricity production being implemented.

Axpo is already taking the lead in this respect and has launched a solar offensive with the aim of realising around 4,200 solar projects by 2030. Axpo is committed to comprehensive sustainability. In fulfilling its responsibility to take the best possible care of people and the environment, the balancing of protection and use interests plays a central role.

Find out more about tomorrow's energy mix in the Axpo Power Switcher

Do not further weaken hydropower

The work carried out within the framework of the Hydropower Round Table is a good example of the difficulty of constructively balancing the interests of protection and use. Axpo also believes that the counter-proposal to the biodiversity initiative further weakens hydropower. It is particularly affected by the new provisions and the planned expansion of protected areas. This will make new projects and the expansion of existing plants more expensive and more difficult, and in the worst case even impossible. At the same time, it should not be overlooked that existing requirements, e.g. the stricter residual water provisions for new licences, will already result in the loss of significant shares of today's electricity generation. In order to still achieve the goals of the Energy Strategy 2050 and to prevent the erosion of hydropower's central contribution to supply, it must be possible to compensate for these losses.

Axpo is demonstrating that hydropower and ecology are not contradictory, not least with around 120 ongoing renovation projects at its hydropower plants that will be launched by 2030. 

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