Switzerland’s 604 hydroelectric plants aren’t just powerhouses for clean energy. Some dams are also dramatic destinations. But their source of fuel is literally drying up.
By Bill Harby
Switzerland’s glaciers are shrinking. In 2015, of 99 Swiss glaciers measured, 92 were retreating, 3 were stationary and 4 were advancing.
Global warming doesn’t just threaten Switzerland’s postcard panoramas, but also the backbone of its energy production: hydro-electricity.
In the early 1970s hydroelectric dams provided almost 90 percent of Switzerland’s power. By 1985 the number had fallen to about 60 percent, thanks to five nuclear power plants that had been added to the grid. Today, 56 percent of Switzerland’s energy comes from our 604 hydroelectric plants, while nuclear accounts for 40 percent, with the remaining 4 percent from fossil fuels, wind and solar. Also, Switzerland imports energy, especially during winter, when about 11 percent of our energy flows mostly from France and Germany, primarily from nuclear and fossil fuels.
With our aging reactors and the scare provided by the 2011 meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, Switzerland plans to decommission all its nuclear plants by 2034.
How will their part of the energy pie be replaced?
In spite of technological advances being made in wind, solar and geothermal power, hydroelectric will continue to play a huge part, says the Swiss Federal Office of Energy. But there are frightening long-term limitations because of the steady shrinkage of Swiss glaciers, which have always provided most of the fuel for Swiss hydroelectric dams.
For the next few decades, thanks to increasing glacial melt, the water available to create hydropower will actually increase, say climatologists. But eventually, maybe in the next century, the glaciers will have mostly melted, and we will have lost our hydropower fuel, according to Energy Scope.
Switzerland plans to forestall the diminishing supply of glacial water in three ways:
– Heightening the walls of dams already in place
– Increasing hydropower plant efficiency
– Constructing more pumped storage facilities.
Currently, pumped-storage plants supply less than 5 percent of hydropower in Switzerland. This kind of plant uses two reservoirs, one above the dam and one below, to reuse water. Water is released from the upper reservoir, flows down through the turbines and into the lower reservoir to produce electricity. During those hours when electricity usage costs are low after high energy production, water is pumped from the lower reservoir back up to the one above.
Swiss dams provide more than energy. They provide inspiration. You don’t have to be a dam geek to appreciate these architectural marvels, mostly set in some of Switzerland’s most breath-taking scenery.
Grande Dixence is not the highest dam in Switzerland, but it is the world’s tallest gravity dam.
Does Switzerland need more dam reservoirs? (in English)