30.11.2023 | “The solution is a good mix of different technologies”

Christoph Brand on the response to the new Power Switcher

Axpo has updated its Power Switcher electricity calculator with additional functions and scenarios. As expected, this has prompted a good deal of discussion. Ten questions for Axpo CEO Christoph Brand.

 

Christoph, the new version of the Axpo Power Switcher made a splash last week. Were you expecting that kind of response?

Christoph Brand: Yes, I was. Because our aim is to set out the facts and help drive the discussion. And because we still need to find 50 terawatt hours of electricity by 2050 – that’s a lot, and a lot more than everything we get from hydropower right now. And sadly we have to admit that Switzerland is not on track.

Where does Switzerland stand now?

Switzerland has to decide how it wants its future electricity supply to look. This means deciding which mix of technologies will best fulfil the mammoth task of climate transition, how to expand the chosen energy sources to the required scope, and what costs might arise in the process. It also has to come up with an optimal balance of the energy trilemma – climate friendliness, security of supply and affordability. And it is for this challenge that we introduced the Power Switcher. So it was obvious that there would be a response.

Are you happy with that response?

Overall, yes. Because as I said, we urgently need this discussion. At the moment, many commentators are concentrating on the cost issue to the exclusion of everything else. And once again we see individual technologies presented almost as saviours, or the exact opposite, which is of course nonsense. My hope is that we will now see a broader discussion.

Why is the focus on costs too narrow?

Costs are naturally an important factor – and in fact one of the key new functions of the Power Switcher is to create transparency around costs. But there are other factors as well. The acceptance of a technology is highly important. Unfortunately it is still low for wind power, even though it could supply plenty of highly valuable winter electricity, and is more cost-effective than any other new-build source. On the other hand, we see a very high level of acceptance for photovoltaics (PV) on roofs, which is why things are moving relatively quickly in that area. But it is small-scale roof PV in particular that come with higher costs for the general public than other technologies. And while they generate a lot of electricity in summer, they don’t supply enough in the colder half of the year to solve the winter electricity problem. It’s better to have a mix of different technologies that complement each other. 

The relatively low costs for nuclear power have surprised some people. What can you say about that?

When it comes to nuclear power, there are two perspectives. At Axpo we are technology-neutral, but for a company like ours, building a new nuclear power plant with the generation available today and under the current framework conditions would simply be too high a financial risk. I’ve been repeating this fact ever since I started at Axpo.

From a macroeconomic perspective, on the other hand, it could be worth broaching the subject. Compared to other technologies, the macroeconomic costs come in around the middle and are thus lower than the small-scale roof PV we discussed earlier. And the fact is, if you don’t want to see solar or wind installations in the landscape but you still want to meet carbon targets without betting the house on an import strategy, you can’t get around nuclear power. But the operational perspective remains the same. In the whole back-and-forth debate about nuclear power, however, there are two other key arguments that get ignored.

What are they?

First, you should generally avoid excessive focus on a single technology – no matter what it is. That would be risky, particularly when you look at the time horizon. In the Power Switcher, we developed a hypothetical scenario called “Landscape”, with two new nuclear power plants. The calculations are clear: alongside new nuclear power plants we would also need rapid, massive expansion of other production capacities. Because – what do we do before the new nuclear power plants go online? That would take at least 20 years, and meanwhile electricity demand would be increasing the whole time. Because we don’t want to see Switzerland too reliant on imports, we need other technologies until new nuclear power actually comes online.

And the second reason we need to look beyond just the costs of nuclear power?

The second aspect is acceptance. Opinions on nuclear power are highly polarised, which means there would be an extensive process before we have new nuclear power plants. I’m reminded that it took 19 years to open one small, local hydropower plant, which was commissioned a few months ago – and with only a third of the planned output. The resistance to new nuclear power plants would most likely be exponentially bigger – and not just local. Other technologies don’t face the same difficulties, so they could be expanded more quickly. The controversial issue of waste also impacts acceptance, although deep geological repositories represent a technical solution.

So what is the solution for Switzerland?

Ultimately, the choice of electricity mix is a decision for society, but there is no doubt that the solution lies in a mix of different technologies. We have developed a corresponding scenario called “Renewable”, which aligns with our own Axpo strategy. It contains a diversified mix that considers the energy trilemma in all its dimensions. But this scenario would require a very significant expansion of all renewable energies. It also assumes that we will have carbon-free gas-fired power stations in the 2040s, which is something we can’t be entirely sure of right now.

Let’s take a step back and look at the Power Switcher. Who is it aimed at?

It is aimed at anyone who wants to develop their own fact-based scenarios and find out more about the scenarios proposed by other people and organisations. And at anyone who wishes to use an innovative instrument to model the electricity mix of the future, taking dependencies and costs into account.

What data does the Power Switcher draw on?

For months we combed through numerous studies, and they form the basis of our calculations. They are listed under the source material. The methodology of the Power Switcher was also reviewed by ETH Zurich.

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