May 21, 2017 vote Voting on Switzerland’s energy future

Switzerland's five nuclear power plants produce about a third of the country's electricity.

Switzerland's five nuclear power plants produce about a third of the country's electricity.

(Keystone)

The Swiss must decide if they are ready give up nuclear energy and rely more on renewables, as part of a vote on May 21 on the government’s future energy strategy.

In 2011, a few weeks after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, the Swiss cabinet called for an end to the country’s reliance on nuclear power. From this decision came the government’s Energy Strategy (ES) 2050external link – a vast undertaking that forms the basis for a major upheaval of the Swiss energy system.

As well as the gradual closure of five nuclear plants across the country, which will be deactivated at the end of their life cycles, ES 2050 targets the promotion of renewable energy sources and increased energy efficiency. The cabinet’s objective is to guarantee a secure energy supply, and decrease dependence on imported fossil fuels.

Although the cabinet’s initial objectives were downsized, the first package of ES 2050 measures were accepted by parliament, with the ambitions of the political left prevailing over the fears and reluctance of the right.

The new federal law on energy, adopted after two years of debate, anchors the ban on constructing new nuclear plants and sets benchmark values for the promotion of “new” renewable energy sources (wind, biomass, etc.). It also provides support for the hydroelectric sector – one of the pillars of the Swiss energy system, which is currently under pressure – as well as reduced energy consumption by buildings, motor vehicles and electrical appliances.

Opposed from the start to this energy shift, the conservative right Swiss People’s Party successfully launched a referendum against the new law. Supported by Switzerland’s Energy Alliance and several economic and industry umbrella associations, the People’s Party collected 68,000 signatures (surpassing the 50,000 required). Thus on May 21, it will fall to the electorate to decide Switzerland’s future energy policy.

Quitting nuclear: an opportunity for Switzerland

“The energy sector is undergoing a total transformation at a global scale, supported by low prices and the development of new technologies,” declared energy minister Doris Leuthard at the launch of the ES 2050 campaign. She emphasised that with this revision of the law, the cabinet and parliament want to guarantee a secure future supply of energy, while protecting the climate and creating jobs.

“It is a great opportunity for our country,” echoed Stefan Batzli, director of the Agency for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, one of ES 2050’s supporters.

“Our energy infrastructure is continually ageing and is subject to dysfunction, as we saw with the Beznau 1 reactor, which was stopped two years ago. We must therefore modernise. Over the next 10-20 years, we will still use nuclear power, so that’s an interval of time that will allow us to replace the atom with renewable energy sources. It is not a revolution, but a process already in motion,” Batzli told swissinfo.ch.

During the parliamentary debates, Adèle Thorens Goumaz, co-president of Switzerland’s Green Party, said: “Companies and individuals want to participate in the transition to secure and clean local supply of energy." This is evidenced, she added, by the long waiting list of projects that have applied for financial support via a government tariff, which guarantees producers of electricity from renewable sources a price that corresponds to their production costs.

To finance renewable energy, households will be called upon to pay more for electricity. The grid surcharge to encourage electricity production from renewable energy will go from 1.5 to 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour. For a family of four, that would translate to an annual electricity bill increase of about CHF 40 ($40), according to Leuthard. It’s an estimate that does not convince opponents of ES 2050 at all, who speak of a “flagrant lie aimed at deceiving the people”.

What if the sun isn’t shining?

Albert Rösti, president of the People’s Party and of a pro nuclear energy group, thinks that halving energy consumption would be “extremely costly”.

“It would mean for example having to replace all existing heating oil systems, which are currently used in one out of every two buildings in Switzerland. It would also mean reducing by half the number of kilometres travelled by motor vehicles, and imposing drastic measures in the realms of real estate and business,” says Rösti.

According to a committee opposed to ES 2050, the energy shift would cost some CHF 200 billion, which is CHF 3,200 annually for each family of four in the country – an estimate that Leuthard calls “erroneous”.

But going beyond figures, opponents of ES 2050 are especially worried about securing the country’s energy future. They fear that renewable energy will not permit reliable, affordable energy production in sufficient quantities. “We will have to import more electricity, especially in winter, and we will be even more dependent on other countries,” says Rösti, who wants to maintain the nuclear option.

“What will we do when the sun isn’t shining or when there is no wind?” asks the head of Switzerland’s Radical Party, Christian Wasserfallen, who is among the most vehement detractors of ES 2050. Instead of subsidising renewable energy and introducing regulations and bans in the energy sector, he believes the electricity market should be totally liberalised.

Nuclear exit at the top of the polls

As was already the case in November 2016, energy politics in Switzerland will be decided by vote. Six months ago, the electorate rejected (by 54.2%) a popular initiative that called for banning the construction of new nuclear plants, and limiting the lifespan of existing ones to 45 years.

Interestingly, an analysis of the vote revealed that three voters in four favoured a Switzerland without nuclear power. On May 21, it will become clear if this majority also supports the plan proposed by the cabinet and parliament.

One strategy, two phases

ES 2050 is divided into two phases. The first package of measures provides for the step-by-step closure of nuclear power plants, the development of renewable energy, and increased energy efficiency. This is the package on which the people will vote on May 21.

The second phase includes the introduction of climate and electricity taxes levied on fuels and fossil fuels, as well as on electricity consumption. But following the refusal to bring the matter before the House of Representatives last March 8th, the project already seems doomed to fail.

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Translated from French by Celia Luterbacher, swissinfo.ch

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