Politics, Economy, Europe

Fear of energy crisis in Switzerland as EU-Russia tensions rise

Wealthy European country could face rolling blackouts like those in developing nations, energy industry chief cautions

Peter Kenny   | 04.08.2022
Fear of energy crisis in Switzerland as EU-Russia tensions rise

GENEVA

Switzerland, like much of Europe, depends on outside energy sources in troubling times as the world grapples with how to fuel its homes, businesses, and industries.

Although it sticks to its neutrality and is not part of the European Union, Russia's war on Ukraine and its impact on energy have the Swiss worried about personal heating in the coming winter.

There are also calls for the Alpine country to align more with its European neighbors.

Switzerland should align with an EU plan for cutting energy consumption to cope with the fallout from the war in Ukraine, Swiss Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said recently.

EU countries approved a plan late last month to jointly reduce their gas consumption by 15% between August 2022 and March 2023.

Although the decision does not directly commit non-EU member Switzerland, all Swiss imports of natural gas pass through the EU.

"The European Commission has asked all member countries to make plans to reach the 15% target, and I am convinced that Switzerland must align itself with the European measures," Sommaruga said in an interview with the Swiss national broadcaster, RTS.

She noted that the Swiss government "is already preparing such a plan."

Sommaruga stressed that Switzerland depends on foreign countries, particularly its neighbors, for gas and oil imports.

"At the moment, Switzerland exports electricity," she said. "But in winter, we will have to import it. So we must stay in close contact with the EU. That is the best thing we can do."

Tricky relationship

Switzerland and the EU have a knotty relationship, and the recent decision by the Alpine nation to definitively shut the door on a framework agreement with the EU showed it will not willingly give up its independence.

It has been 30 years since Switzerland refused to join the EU. But surrounded by EU nations, its economy and cultural entities are inextricably linked with its neighbors.

A Swiss government announcement earlier in the year had Swiss residents wondering if the same fate awaits them as in countries like South Africa and the Philippines, where blackouts can frequently occur day and night.

Even for Switzerland now, it is a race against time to expand energy diversity.

Switzerland could be forced into rolling four-hour blackouts in different areas should Europe's energy crisis trigger winter power shortages, Michael Frank, director of the Association of Swiss Electricity Companies (VSE), has said.

Frank, speaking at a government briefing, said Switzerland intended to bring stricter measures to conserve power if needed.

He said the government could request voluntary conservation steps and limit uses such as illuminating shop windows, mobile heating, or night lighting.

"You have to imagine this as a puzzle. Individual segments would be removed for four hours, then turned back on while others are removed. Some parts of the network -- the pieces of the puzzle -- would have no power for four hours, then have power again for four or eight hours depending on the situation," Frank said.

Swiss companies could be ordered to reduce their electricity consumption by a specific percentage in the event of a shortage, the government warned earlier in the year in a brochure sent to 30,000 companies.

As far back as October 2021, Swiss media reported that the first measure the government would take to counter electricity shortages would be to urge the population to ease its electricity consumption.

On July 14, Renewables Now, a group of Swiss energy companies working on a pilot project for a geothermal power plant of up to 5 megawatts in the canton of Jura, said it could become Switzerland's first planned power plant using deep geothermal energy.

Earlier in the year, the Swiss government said it was setting up a gas sector crisis intervention group and a monitoring system to enable early detection of an impending electricity shortage and preparation for severe power shortages.

"The monitoring system is to provide information on the current supply and market situation in Switzerland as well as analyses of self-supply," the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research said on May 4.

Cutting electricity imports

"It is intended to show how long Switzerland could secure its electricity supply without electricity imports."

The biggest energy supplier for the Alpine country is its 638 hydroelectric power plants, which account for 59.9% of the total domestic electricity production.

The largest dam in Switzerland is the 285-meter (935-foot) high Grande Dixence Dam in the canton of Valais, the third-highest gravity dam in the world.

According to the government, Switzerland's primary energy sources are oil, natural gas, nuclear power, and hydropower.

Petroleum and other fuels are the primary sources of energy in Switzerland (50.6%), followed by electricity (25%), gas (13.5%), and wood (4.4%).

Electricity is mainly generated by hydropower (59.9%), nuclear power (33.5%), and conventional thermal power plants (2.3%, non-renewable).

Switzerland's average energy consumption per person has fallen by around 14.5% since 1990. However, the country's resident population has grown by 23.4% over the same period, so total energy consumption has increased by 5.5%, according to the Swiss government.

When it comes to oil, Switzerland is not dependent on Russia.

It imports nearly half of its crude oil from Africa, with 39% from Nigeria, 6% from Libya, and 1% from Egypt. The remaining half comes from Mexico (18%), the US (12%), Kazakhstan (8%), and other countries.

Since 2005, Switzerland has seen a surge in renewable energies such as ambient heat, biomass, wind, and solar power.

In May, the government also tasked the country's gas industry association, VSG, with forming a new crisis intervention organization looking at other alternatives due to reservations expressed in consultations regarding the association's independence and a lack of regulation over the gas market.

"Against the background of the Ukraine war and the associated uncertain supply situation, the Federal Council is now entrusting the VSG with the task of forming a (crisis intervention organization) for a limited period of one year," the government said.

"To take account of the reservations expressed in the consultation process, the inclusion of gas consumer representatives (in the crisis intervention organization) is stipulated, and the mandate is limited to one year."

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