Last week the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) announced that 62% of the electricity consumed in Switzerland had been linked to renewable sources.
It is difficult to know where the electricity from your plug came from. It is sometimes a bit like taking water from the sea and claiming it came from a particular glacier.
Switzerland’s electricity network is connected to the European grid, a sea of electricity produced by different means across Europe.
Because of its central geographic location, around 11% of Europe’s electricity flows in and out of the country.
Every year Switzerland imports and exports between 50 and 90 TWh of electricity, more than the 64 TWh it produces and the 60 TWh it consumes.
Adding to the confusion, Switzerland uses its dams as aquatic batteries. It uses cheap off-peak electricity to pump water up to reservoirs so it can be released at peak times to power hydro-electric generators.
Grids and exchanges muddy the water. Sometimes the dirty gets mixed with the clean and a certain portion of it, known as grey electricity, becomes unidentifiable.
Of the Swiss electricity produced renewably (64%), most is from hydro (59%) with the rest (5%) coming from solar, wind and biomass.
The chart above shows a breakdown of total Swiss electricity production in 2016.
The chart below shows the attribution of electricity consumed in Switzerland in 2016.
In 2016, electricity consumed and linked to renewable sources was 62%, 2% less than the percentage produced renewably (64%).
This is because there is still some attribution work to be done. The electricity classified as grey has not been attributed to a source. This is because some of the electricity consumed comes from unknown sources, much of it from beyond Switzerland.
As the level of integration grows between Swiss and European grids, the game starts to change.
Firstly, the overall system becomes more efficient. Peaks and troughs in supply and demand can be dealt with more efficiently across a larger pool of electricity. In addition, Swiss hydro facilities can be used as aquatic batteries more extensively, mopping up excess electricity from across Europe. This improves efficiency, particularly of unpredictable renewables sources like wind, and generates income for Switzerland – it pumps water up to its dams with cheap off-peak electricity and uses the water to generate and sell electricity at peak prices.
Secondly, the cleanliness of Swiss electricity production becomes less relevant to Swiss electricity consumption. If clean Swiss energy can be sold to countries with dirtier production, then consuming less and exporting more will cut dirty production in those countries. In effect, grid integration turns Swiss electricity consumers into European electricity consumers. And when that happens, it’s the overall cleanliness of the European grid that matters more than the cleanliness of local production.
In the end, European electricity will increasingly, like climate change does, know no borders.