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Low water levels push up electricity prices

Switzerland's artificial levels in the Alps are only half full Keystone Archive

Water levels in Switzerland's lakes and rivers have sunk as a result of low rainfall and cold temperatures over the past months.

The liberalised electricity market allows the Swiss power industry to import cheaper electricity to make up for a shortage of hydro-electricity – a lucrative business.

The Federal Energy Office said earlier this week that Switzerland’s artificial lakes were only about half full at the moment compared with a level of 67 per cent a year ago and 83 per cent in autumn 2003.

Experts say it is not unusual for the many artificial lakes in the Alps to run low during the winter season due to the meteorological conditions.

Last year hydro-electricity had to make up for the temporary closure of one of the country’s nuclear power plants.

Liberalised market

But the relative water shortage is unlikely to lead to difficulties for the electricity industry.

Walter Hauenstein, director of the national Water Management Association, said he expected no major impact on the Swiss power industry, which has stepped up imports of cheap energy.

The liberalised electricity market in Europe means that at peak times operators can sell hydro-electricity abroad at a high price, allowing the industry to make a considerable profit.

But power stations on rivers will have to reduce their output if water levels fall too low.

Electricity consumption increased by more than two per cent last year compared with 2004. Some 4,500 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) – accounting for 7.3 per cent – were imported. The previous year imports made up only 28 million kWh.

Switzerland is among the highest electricity consumers in Europe with an average of 5,220kWh per household in 2003. The European Union average is 4,040kWh.

Drinking water

The low water levels have not had a major impact on the supply of drinking water so far.

Only a handful of villages in remote regions in the northwestern Jura region and in the northeast have drawn up emergency plans to prevent a water shortage.

Lake Maggiore, which borders Italy in southern Switzerland, is about to reach a historic low of 192 metres.

Lake Constance, with shores in Switzerland, Germany and Austria, is approaching an all-time low, affecting some ferry services.

swissinfo with agencies

Swiss electricity consumption rose 2.1% in 2005 compared with the previous year to reach new record levels.
7.3% of electricity – 4,500 million kWh -was imported in 2005, up from just 28 million kWh in 2004.
Switzerland is among the highest power consumers in Europe. In 2003 a Swiss household used 5,220kWh – the EU average stood at 4,040kWh.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR