11.10.2018 | Energy Strategy 2050 and environmental concerns in conflict

Hydropower: Expansion target endangered

Swiss hydropower plants will incur production losses of at least 2,280 GWh per year in the future. This is the conclusion drawn in a recent study by the Swiss Association for Water Management (SWV) analysing the possible impacts of the Water Protection Act (residual water provisions) on power plants. As a result, the implementation of the Energy Strategy 2050 – including the area of hydropower – is endangered.

Some 59 per cent of the electricity produced in Switzerland currently comes from hydropower. A good thing because this is reliable, domestic production, and practically CO2-free, as well as storable and renewable.

According to the Energy Strategy 2050, hydropower plays a central role in future energy production in Switzerland. The energy law adopted by Swiss voters in May 2017 foresees a continued increase of electricity production from hydropower up to the year 2050. In concrete terms this would be an increase of the average yearly production from some 23,000 GWh to 38'600 GWh.

A lot of hydropower concessions must be renewed in short time
Laws with differing goals

How much water can be used for power production and how much residual water (rivers, streams, wetlands, fish, etc.) must be maintained for nature has already been a source of conflict between power producers and environmentalists in the past. The issue is regulated in the Water Protection Act. The law was enacted in 1992 and requires an increase of residual water levels when hydropower plants are refurbished or when concessions come up for renewal, as will be the case in upcoming years (see graphic above).

Massive losses

For the first time, the SWV has conducted an extensive Swiss-wide analysis on how future power production would be impacted by upcoming refurbishments and new concessions. Eighty per cent of the affected hydropower plants were included in the study. The results are alarming.

The scenario "Same requirements" already indicates a minus of 2,280 GWh per year for hydropower production by the year 2050. This corresponds to some six per cent of today's hydropower production and the combined annual power consumption of the cities of Berne, Chur, Lucerne and St. Gallen. In all the other scenarios the decrease in hydropower production is even stronger in comparison to the reference year 1992 (see Table 1).

Energy loss in GWh per year/different scenarios
What the SWV calls for

The Energy Strategy 2050 not only targets a compensation for these losses, but also aims to increase hydropower production in Switzerland. To sum it up: The actual construction of new hydropower plants would have to amount to 4’580 GWh per year by the year 2050. According to SWV "this is completely unrealistic given the remaining expansion potential and the difficult framework conditions for hydropower."

Effectively necessary extension of hydropower in GWh per year

The SWV supports the sound implementation of residual water provisions. In order to achieve the hydropower production target of the Energy Strategy 2050 "the residual water volumes should not be increased and the ecological requirements must be moderately interpreted. This also requires boosting the newly introduced "national interest in the utilisation of renewable energies" (Energy Act Art. 12) and weighing hydropower more strongly in comparison to environmental interests."

Challenge for the Federal Council

The study by the Association for Water Management has already resulted in a heated debate in the media and politics. "The fight over water has intensified in Europe's water reservoir" was the recent title of the online magazine "Infosperber". An article in the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" refers to growing "Pressure on residual water volumes".

Establishing clarity in the interpretation of the two differing laws now lies with the Federal Council. Albert Rösti, President of the SVP and SWV, has submitted a corresponding interpellation. He wants to know how the Federal Council would minimise possible production losses with a moderate interpretation of the Water Protection Act. The answer will be interesting!

Lake of Gries, part of the facilities of OFIMA
Minus in Ticino

The impacts of the new residual water provisions on the output of existing power plants is exemplary in the Canton of Ticino. The government there issued a decree on residual water re-mediation according to Article 80 of the Water Protection Act. The decree foresees that refurbishment amounting to an estimated CHF 100 million must be carried out along with a massive increase of residual water volumes for the wetlands along the Ticino, Maggia and Brenno rivers.

According to calculations by the Canton of Ticino this amounts to a seven-per cent reduction of annual production for the affected power plants, corresponding to 150 GWh per year. The majority of these losses would fall on the Maggia (OFIMA) and Blenio (OFIBLE) power plants in which Axpo holds a 30-per cent and 17-per cent interest respectively. The losses of the two companies would be compensated by the time the current concession expires. However, a more precise mechanism for the calculation of these payments has not been determined at this time.

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