December 10, 2012

Swiss Battery May Lose Power

Swiss energy companies are determined to turn the country into a ‘battery for Europe’. Vast investments are made in big-scale water power projects. But it is not certain they will eventually pay off.

With the decision for a nuclear shutdown, the spotlight in Switzerland and Germany has switched to renewable energy sources. In Germany there’s a massive boost to solar and wind energy production, while Switzerland’s energy companies focus on increasing their storage capacities in the Alps.

About 11 percent of Europe’s electricity flows through Switzerland. The Swiss electricity industry stresses the advantages of the country’s central location in Europe and its topography. On the European energy map, Swiss mountain lakes could function as a huge battery for unsteadily generated renewable energy, and generate high revenues.

Natural and artificial mountain lakes are an essential component of Switzerland’s energy supply. Water power makes up 57 percent of the country’s electricity production. Some of these lakes aren’t just natural water reservoirs though, but serve as basins for pumped-storage hydro power plants (PSPs).

The system is simple and has long been a good business. Throughout the day, cheap, spare electricity is bought on the market and then used to pump water from a lower reservoir to a basin further up the mountain. At times when demand for electricity is high, stored water is released and drives turbines that produce electricity, which can then be sold on the market for a higher price.

PSPs function like huge batteries.

Currently, 11 such plants are running in Switzerland with a combined 1400 megawatt capacity. Three other projects are under construction, to increase Swiss pumped-storage capacity to 3500 megawatts by 2017. Two more PSPs are being planned: ‘Grimsel 3′ at the Grimsel Pass in the Bernese Alps and ‘Lago Bianco’ at the Bernina Pass in Grisons.

“The symbiosis between nature and technology has defined the character of this landscape,” writes the Grimsel region’s tourism agency. Ernst Baumberger, press officer at the regional energy company KWO looks at Grimsel through two lenses: while praising the region’s beauty, Baumberger points out that a plenty of precipitation, glaciation, rock as building ground and the immense altitude difference make it ideal for water power use. KWO put its first power plant at Grimsel in operation 80 years ago.

The company recently was licenced to implement its 1.2 billion Swiss francs project ‘KWOplus’, including the construction of a second PSP (‘Grimsel 3′). The plant will have a 660 megawatt capacity, which is about the power of an average Swiss nuclear plant. The plan is controversial, both politically and economically.

“Switzerland doesn’t need any additional PSPs. There’s neither a lack of batteries, nor a grid stability problem,” argues Jürg Buri, managing director of the Swiss Energy Foundation (SES). He says that no country operates as many flexible power stations as Switzerland.

Environmental organisations say that mainly cheap electricity from coal and nuclear plants is used for the pumping and that during the process, about a quarter of the energy is lost. Even worse, at windy times, PSPs keep coal and nuclear plants running.

There’s nothing green about pumped-storage hydroelectricity anyway. “If today’s PSPs were supplied with clean energy, that business would be unprofitable,” Buri says. “The revenues of the peak current wouldn’t make up for the purchase price and the energy lost for pumping.”

According to the licence, KWO is obliged to run Grimsel 3 with as much renewable energy as “economically and technically possible.” No fixed share was defined however. KWO’s Baumberger stresses that in the long term, the company’s PSPs should run solely with green electricity. “However, the primary criteria will remain the profitability,” he adds.

While the energy company praises Grimsel 3 as an important contribution to the security of energy supply for the country, Jürg Buri claims that the pumped-storage business further strains transmission lines. “In fact, to run Grimsel 3, even more lines would have to be built, something which people often forget about.”

KWO is currently busy preparing the necessary building applications. In a next step, the management board will discuss the profitability prospects and decide on the investments. “Concerning Grimsel 3, the shareholders are a bit cautious,” KWO’s spokesperson says. “They fear that with the current electricity prices, the investments may not pay off.”

The Swiss Association for Water Management (SWV) views investments in PSPs as risky and their profitability as volatile. At the Bernische Kraftwerke (BKW), which holds half of KWO’s shares and manages electricity trade, the media officer declines to comment on the prospects of pumped-storage hydroelectricity. It’s no secret though that Swiss energy companies are deeply concerned by the volatile electricity price and the declining price difference between peak and off-peak current.

That difference is essential for the PSP business model, which relies on providing expensive peak current, especially at noon time. Nowadays, subsidised wind and solar energy from other European states are conquering that market, challenging and flattening the prices of peak current and thereby reducing the profit rates of PSP-based energy providers.

SES’s Jürg Buri is sure that Switzerland’s ‘battery boost’ will soon come to an end. “Neither Lago Bianco, nor Grimsel 3 will be built. The economic risks are too high.” He stresses that both projects primarily target the European market. “Don’t forget that besides decreasing electricity trade revenues, Swiss PSPs are further challenged by the increasing number of flexible power plants in Europe.”

Ernst Baumberger explains that his company has different options to move on with Grimsel 3. “If the situation on the electricity market worsens, we may split the building of Grimsel 3 in various stages. At each stage, market developments could be analysed before moving on with construction.”

In contrast to environmental organisations, KWO’s Baumberger remains optimistic. He stresses that in the light of booming wind and solar energy in Europe, the demand for further storage capacities will grow. “What Switzerland so far offers in terms of energy storage is nothing but a drop in the ocean.”

While opinions on the future of Swiss pumped-storage hydroelectricity differ sharply, one thing seems sure: the industry’s prospects lie in the hands of European, not Swiss politicians and businessmen.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

June 29, 2012

Melting Permafrost Threatens Swiss Villages

Melting glaciers are the most visible effect of global warming in the Swiss Alps. Meanwhile, permafrost is invisible and melting too, often causing rockfall and massive debris flows, ultimately threatening mountain villages.

Guttannen, home to 310 residents, is a tiny village in the Bernese Alps, the last one that travellers drive through on the way up to Grimsel Pass. It’s spring and the snow is retreating from the steep slopes of the valley. As the pass is still closed, calm reigns in the picturesque village centre. Only cowbells and the rushing of the nearby Aar river break the silence.

For some residents though, living in Guttannen has become rather uneasy and, on the long term, even dangerous. The root cause of the peril lies further uphill, in the northeastern flank of the 3,282 metres high Ritzlihorn. In July 2009, a huge rockfall had occurred and since then, massive debris flows have roared downhill each summer.

“These mudslides as well as the volume of transported rubble have grown from year to year,” says Nils Hählen, hydraulic engineer at the cantonal public works service. “The debris partly ends up in the Aar, lifting and widening its channel.” Within three years, 630,000 cubic metres were transported into the river, increasingly endangering civil infrastructure.

In summer, after heavy rainfall, the only road leading through the narrow valley often has to be temporarily closed. A house near the river already had to be taken down, the local sewage treatment plant may be next. Since 2010, the debris flows reach as far as the hamlet Boden, threatening ten houses and 30 inhabitants. “The next few mudslides won’t be a big problem,” says Guttannen council leader Hans Abplanalp. However, some houses would effectively be threatened in two to five, others in five to seven years, he adds.

One of these homes belongs to Martin Leuthold. “I’ve lived here for 60 years and my father was already a farmer here,” he says. Leuthold claims he has no fear, as he’s grown up with the moods of nature. Nevertheless, the farmer doesn’t ignore the peril: “Perhaps nothing will happen for the next 10 years, but maybe this summer it could all rumble down on us. Nobody knows.”

Nearby, Hans von Weissenfluh lives less than 20 metres away from the river. “The threat is real, we can see it,” he says. Von Weissenfluh remembers well how impressive amounts of water and debris came down the Aar last summer. “Only five years ago, the river channel was much more narrow,” he notices.

Engineers, geologists and glaciologists assume permafrost melt to be the underlying problem. Permafrost is underground material such as rock or rubble that permanently remains at or below zero degrees centigrade. Ice is a possible, but not a necessary ingredient. “The issue is, that permafrost occurrence is generally not known,” says Nils Hählen. There are maps designed on calculated probabilities, but as the hydraulic engineer explains, in any case things have to be evaluated locally.

In northeastern mountain slopes, permafrost may occur roughly above 2,600 meters altitude. Scientists estimate that about 5 percent of Switzerland’s area contains permafrost. It stabilises steep rocky or scree slopes in the high mountains and protects them from erosion by serving as a kind of natural putty. When permafrost melts, the result may be rockfalls and debris flows. “The lower permafrost zones are the most vulnerable,” explains Hählen.

He locates the cause of permafrost melt in rising air temperatures which have been measured over the past years in the European Alps. Jeannette Nötzli, glaciologist at the University of Zurich, mentions that atmosphere and underground permafrost are often not directly coupled. Ice content and changes in surface coverage can mask atmospheric signals. Nötzli heads the Coordination Office of the Swiss Permafrost Monitoring Network PERMOS.

“As PERMOS’ systematic monitoring commenced in 2000, most of our data cover around a decade, whereas for robust statements about trends in climate science typically a 30-year period is considered,” Nötzli points out. “However,” the researcher adds, “much of our data points to permafrost degradation. For example, in the past three years active layer depths in summer have increased with new record values at many of the observed sites.”

Reliable forecasting of permafrost changes isn’t possible. In the case of Guttannen, experts limit their predictions to the next year. Hählen expects that in the long term, debris flows from the Ritzlihorn will stop, as ultimately the catchment area in the flank is limited.

Removing the rubble from the valley floor and the Aar is no option. It’s too risky, but also too costly. Additionally, dumping places in the region are limited. Only to remove the current rubble from the river would cost more than 18 million Swiss Francs and accumulate to at least 50,000 lorry loads.

There’s not much hope for the residents of Boden. Ultimately, they’ll have to leave their homes and resettle somewhere else. Hans Abplanalp, the council president, has talked to all persons concerned. “Nearly all of them want to stay in Guttannen,” he says. “We can offer them land and homes to buy.”

Boden resident Hans von Weissenfluh plans to move up to Guttannen as soon as possible. Others such as Martin Leuthold are more hesitant. He wouldn’t mind living somewhere else in the village, but is reluctant to tear down his house and move all the belongings.

“That’s a lot of work,” he says. Leuthold fears he will not be fully compensated. He’d only be compensated for his stable if he built a new one in another place. “I wouldn’t know what to build a new stable for, as I’ll soon be retired.”

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

April 25, 2012

But What in Place of Nuclear Power

In the wake of Fukushima, the Swiss government decided last year to slowly, but definitely phase out nuclear energy. But the new energy strategy for the next decade has drawn criticism, especially from environmental organisations.

Switzerland’s household electricity relies largely on nuclear and hydro power. Five nuclear power plants, of which the last will be shut down in 2034, currently produce 40.7 percent of the country’s electricity. Making up for this large share once it’s phased out requires a fundamental change in Switzerland’s energy policy, an “ambitious but feasible” undertaking as the government keeps saying.

Deciding on the nuclear shutdown is one thing, but implementing it and defining concrete measures is a more complicated task. The Swiss Federal Council has outlined its energy policy framework for the next decades under the title ‘Energy Package 2050’. The main pillars of the strategy are reduction of energy consumption, increasing efficiency of energy use, and scaling up renewable energy.

The government has calculated that by 2050, energy consumption could be reduced by 28 percent compared to 2000. Potential for reduction is mainly seen in buildings rehabilitation and in the industrial and services sectors. EnAW, the energy agency of the Swiss economy, has presented a study including scenarios for increasing electricity efficiency. According to EnAW, Swiss companies could save 7 twh (terrawatt hours) by 2050.

“That’s disappointing,” says Jürg Buri, managing director of the Swiss Energy Foundation (SES), which pushes for an ecological and sustainable energy policy. “Swiss businesses could easily save twice as much electricity by 2050.” There is potential already, he says, to save 7 twh with more efficient industrial motors.

SES, Greenpeace, Pro Natura and the WWF reacted with a joint statement to the government’s announcement, saying the steps taken by the Federal Council are too small. Patrick Hofstetter, climate policy campaigner at WWF Switzerland calls the new energy strategy “unambitious”, claiming that there’s much more potential to increase energy usage efficiency in the economy as well as in households.

A strong instrument such as a regulatory tax is lacking, he says. “Wasting electricity is still too attractive for companies and households…Taking measures to save energy requires knowhow that few people have, and monetary savings are often small.”

The Federal Council admits that the package of measures it presented suffice only to fulfil about half the goals set for 2050. Swiss Energy Minister Doris Leuthard ays she would be more than happy if more energy could be saved than planned.

The second pillar of the new energy policy strategy is renewable energy. The Federal Council estimates that production could be increased by a third by 2050. But here too, views differ drastically. There is huge difference between the government’s estimates and those calculated by environmental groups concerning solar energy. The latter claim that renewable energy is often reduced to hydropower, neglecting the immense potential of solar energy.

Wind, biomass and the sun currently only provide 0.26 percent of Switzerland’s electricity. In Germany, those three energy sources held a 16 percent share in the past year’s electricity mix. WWF Switzerland estimates that solar energy could be scaled up by 15 twh by 2035, which is five times the government’s goal.
“In Germany, in December 2011 alone 3 twh of solar energy went online,” says Hofstetter. “So, what Germany did within one month, Switzerland expects to do in 23 years.”

Swiss Energy Minister Doris Leuthard earned even more disapproval when she said that if saving efforts failed, electricity would either have to be imported, or up to six combined-cycle gas plants would have to be built to make up for the energy gap caused by the nuclear shutdown.

WWF’s Patrick Hofstetter recalls the latest outlook published by the International Energy Agency. “It stated that in order to reach the two-degree target (on warming of the planet) no investment in fossil energy infrastructure should be made after 2017 worldwide. The Swiss plan to invest in fossil energy therefore is quite awkward.”

Environmental groups claim that the risks of nuclear energy shouldn’t be replaced by the risks of climate change. Combined-cycle gas plants cause massive carbon dioxide emissions. “Taking into consideration the country’s CO2budget, the 30 million tons put out by each plant over the next 30 years would be far too much,” Hofstetter says.

The Federal Council is using the threat of combined-cycle gas plants to put pressure on the economy, but also on Swiss cantons and environmental groups: “If we want to expand renewable energy production, environmental organisations need to lessen their opposition to such projects,” the Swiss Energy Minister demanded.

WWF’s Hofstetter says the Federal Council is not right to argue that a more intense development of renewable energy is hindered by conflicts with nature and landscape protection. “It’s based on the prevailing idea that hydropower is the only renewable energy in Switzerland, which indeed is nearly fully developed.”
Hofstetter defends the environmental organisation’s right to appeal construction projects, which has recently come under increased pressure. “If that right falls, nobody would insist on the laws concerning nature to be respected.”

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

February 13, 2012

Some Swiss Parcels With Migrants In Them

Two years ago, a Nigerian asylum seeker died during a forced deportation attempt from Switzerland. Now, the prosecution has dismissed the case, leaving nobody responsible for the young man's death. Instead of re-assessing the deportation system, Swiss authorities prefer ignorance.

Six weeks of hunger strike had weakened Joseph Chiakwa, when nine policemen entered his cell at Zurich's deportation prison in the afternoon of March 17, 2010. The cops body-searched the Nigerian asylum seeker, tied his hands and put a boxing helmet on his head. In a nearby building, policemen constrained Chiakwa's arms and legs and tied the 29-year-old to a special wheelchair. For a long time, signs of discomfort were ignored. As a doctor finally arrived, Chiakwa had already died.

Joseph Chiakwa was subjected to a so-called 'Level-IV' deportation attempt. Having spent about a year in the deportation prison, Ibrahim Moses (name changed) says that he got nervous each time rumours of upcoming special flights made rounds. "You're afraid because in there you don't have anyone to fight for you," the West African asylum seeker explains. He witnessed how several inmates were forcefully deported.

"Usually the prison guards ask you to come to the second floor, without letting you know why. There they make you wait. Suddenly and by surprise, policemen overpower you." Usually, the victim is tied up and put in a separate cell, Moses tells. "Later they come for you; six or seven cops for one person. They make you dress (in) special clothes, handcuff you and take you to another building," the young West African says. "There they tie you up like a parcel before carrying you to the plane."

Moses himself faced a 'Level-II' deportation attempt. In this scenario, the handcuffed deportee is escorted by two policemen on a scheduled flight. "I resisted on the way to the plane," Moses says. A few years ago, even totally shackled people were occasionally deported on scheduled flights; so-called 'Level-III' deportations. These don't happen any more and so Moses was taken back to prison. "If you refuse being deported on a normal flight, they may put you as a parcel on a special flight the next time," the West African asylum seeker explains.

In 2011, Switzerland sent back 6,439 persons by air. In all 165 of these were 'Level-IV' cases on 33 special flights. In comparison to previous years, the number of such deportations has dropped, but Amnesty International's refugee coordinator Denise Graf says that still many 'Level-IV' deportations could be avoided. "They should be absolutely exceptional," she says, adding that preparation is often insufficient.

"In most cases, the total shackling of deportees is absolutely disproportionate," Graf points out. She explains that 'Level-IV' deportations carry risks and harm the deportees' human dignity. Amnesty demands that before any deportation attempt, a final, extensive conversation has to be held with the deportees. "The reasons that make a person resist deportation are many and often the problem could be solved easily."

Also, Graf refers to the principle of proportionality: "The police is obliged to always choose the least harming option. However, we observe that very often the harshest possible measures are applied." She says that in Chiakwa's case, nearly all police interventions were escalating.

In the wake of Joseph Chiakwa's death in 2010, the Swiss government paid 50,000 Swiss francs (55,000 dollars) to the victim's family. "As a humanitarian gesture" and "neither compensation, nor an admission of guilt," it stated. The family however was primarily interested in a serious investigation in Chiakwa's death.

Two forensic evaluations ordered by the prosecution of the canton of Zurich identified malfunctions of the victim's heart. "I don't find them plausible," comments Viktor Györffy, lawyer for Chiakwa's family. "When it comes to defining the exact heart disease leading to the death, the evaluations are even contradictory."

Based on an independent evaluation by a cardiologist, Györffy argues that relevant causes were ignored by the prosecution. "According to the cardiologist, Chiakwa's death was caused by the hunger strike combined with the immense stress during the 'Level-IV' deportation attempt," the lawyer says. He adds that even if a heart disease was concurrently causative, those responsible were culpable. "Nobody who's lost a relative in such a way would under these circumstances accept the dismissal of the case," says Györffy, who has filed an appeal against the prosecution's decision.

The lawyer is supported by the human rights group ‘augenauf'. Its speaker Rolf Zopfi regards the prosecution's investigation as biased. "Isn't it remarkable that a 29-year-old dies in the hands of the police and a heart disease is supposedly the sole cause, while all other factors are regarded as unfortunate and ultimately irrelevant?" he asks.

After Chiakwa's death in March 2010, Switzerland temporarily halted special deportation flights. But by June, all but those to Nigeria were resumed. The latter recommenced in January 2011, after bilateral problems were solved. Soon however, Swiss authorities faced criticism again, as the national TV station documented how policemen hit a Nigerian asylum seeker during a deportation attempt, while the police had stated that the concerned flight was carried out "without any incidents."

It is not just human rights organisations demanding independent monitoring of forced deportations. Since January 2011, Switzerland is obliged by the European Union's 'Return Directive' to "provide for an effective forced return monitoring system." No such system has been implemented, even though Swiss authorities had long been aware of the directive's upcoming adoption. Currently, only some deportation flights are monitored by observers who had already run a six-month pilot project for the Federal Office for Migration.

Amnesty's Denise Graf says that transparency and independence are fundamental for any monitoring system: "The observers can't just be another element inside the black box." Rolf Zopfi of 'augenauf' says that the monitoring pilot project doesn't question the proportionality of the system. His organisation considers 'Level-IV' deportations fundamentally dangerous, inhuman and disproportional and therefore categorically rejects them.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

January 26, 2012

"Resistance Rises To Asylum Seekers"

Switzerland saw a 45 percent increase in asylum requests compared in 2011 to the year before. The country struggles to accommodate the new asylum seekers while efforts to put up new centres face fierce resistance by local people.

Shortly before Christmas a small number of asylum seekers were turned away at several asylum centres at the Swiss border. The events marked the peak of an anticipated shortage in host facilities for asylum seekers in the wake of the uprisings in North Africa.

From 2004 to 2010, between 10,000 and 16,000 asylum requests were filed each year. The uprising in Libya led to the re-opening of a key immigration route to Western Europe via Lampedusa in spring 2011. Latest statistics reveal a drastic increase in new asylum requests in Switzerland from 15,567 in 2010 to 22,551 in 2011.

In Switzerland, it's the cantons’ obligation to host asylum seekers. From October to December last year, the canton of Lucerne in central Switzerland had to find a way to accommodate nearly 400 new asylum seekers.

In Lucerne, the relief organisation Caritas is tasked to host and provide services to asylum seekers. Its manager Thomas Thali confirms that sufficient accommodation could be found in late 2011, but that in March 2012 one of their centres is closing down and replacement hasn't been found yet.

In Lucerne, newly arriving people are allocated to collective centres before being relocated to private apartments at the second stage. Caritas manager Thali explains that in comparison to finding apartments for asylum seekers, establishing new centres is provoking political resistance. "Nobody's interested in hearing how well already existing centres are in fact working," Thali regrets.

In Fischbach, a small village with 700 inhabitants, the cantonal authorities planned to establish a new centre by 2012 providing accommodation to 55 asylum seekers. As the plans were unveiled, many locals voiced strong opposition.

Guido Graf, head of the Department of Health and Social Affairs in Lucerne, says he understands people's fears. "We normally inform the communities and inhabitants before signing a rental agreement for a new centre. It's a difficult path as it provokes resistance and criticism," he admits.

Despite the resistance, the centre in Fischbach will be established, though smaller than projected. Nevertheless, the canton still needs up to 100 new places in centres. In Weggis, a lovely village with 4,000 inhabitants right at the Lake Lucerne, the cantonal authorities found a building they would like to turn into a centre for up to 60 asylum seekers. At a communal meeting, many locals expressed strong dissatisfaction.

Emil Grabherr, president of the local section of the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) says that he radically opposes any asylum centre in Weggis, as the village is a regional tourist magnet. Grabherr lives 800 metres from the chosen building and heads a neighbourhood committee.

"The centre would be situated right in the middle of a residential and villa area. Residents are afraid." Also, he thinks that the project is not in line with the zoning plan.

"But anyway," Grabherr says, "it seems those so-called asylum seekers are in fact economic migrants." To stress his argument, he lists the origins of the anticipated refugees. Among them are war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and Iraq. "Therefore, we don't even have to talk about the issue," says the SVP politician.

Speaking on behalf of 'Asylnetz', an organisation observing asylum-related human rights violations in Lucerne, Felix Kuhn points out that over and over, the same old foe images are projected on the new groups of asylum seekers.

"It used to be people from Sri Lanka, Turkey and the Balkans, but now the stigmatisation targets refugees from Africa," he says. Kuhn adds that it's no longer just the parties on the right wing who mobilise against asylum seekers, but that exponents from the political middle have joined the chorus.

Caritas's Thomas Thali says that as long as political parties manage to profit from mobilisations against centres for asylum seekers, resistance will persist. "The image of asylum seekers is strongly influenced by the political debate and the media." In contrast, Thali explains, where people have direct social exchange with asylum seekers, a relaxed atmosphere prevails.

Moreno Casasola, secretary general of the refugee rights organisation 'Solidarité sans frontières' regrets that doors are already slammed in the faces of asylum seekers before arrive. "Instead of having a serious discussion on hosting asylum seekers, things tend to turn into a openly racist debate," he says, pointing to the village of Bettwil, where the locals' protest had attracted far right-wing hanger-ons.

In Casasola's view, provincial villages just aren't the right places for asylum seekers. "There, they're often very isolated and face suspicion and resistance by local inhabitants. It would be better to accommodate asylum seekers in cities."

In an effort to fight what it considers "asylum misery", Lucerne's SVP is now preparing a popular initiative demanding the locals' right to vote on new asylum centres. Also, it demands fully supervised container settlements for asylum seekers outside of densely populated communal areas.

Ironically, it was the SVP's former justice minister Christoph Blocher who in 2006 initiated the reduction of the country's accommodation for asylum seekers. It was a time of comparatively low numbers of asylum requests. Before then, annual numbers of more than 20,000 requests were quite normal.

Now the cantons pay the price for Blocher's austerity. "We had to give up various capacities that we now lack," Thali says. Lucerne's Health and Social Affairs Department has already drawn its conclusions from the current crisis. "In the long run, we'll have to acquire facilities again to regain our freedom of action," Guido Graf says. "It's easier for us to keep a building in reserve than to open a new centre in cases of need."

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.