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.