Staying ahead of the clean technology curve


The cleantech sector could experience one of the highest growth rates of any industry worldwide in the coming decades. The Swiss have for some time been among the world’s leaders in cleantech, but development has been slowing down in business sectors.

This content was published on March 18, 2013 minutes

“A building can be compared with the human body," according to Felix Gassmann, chief executive of Basel-based energy management company Sauter.

"It has sensors that pick up signals, circuits which transmit impulses and first and foremost a brain that organises the information. With this brain - or mini-computer - temperature, humidity, lighting and electricity can be controlled at all times."

Sauter is among the world market leaders in the field of building automation and energy management. Their heating, cooling and electricity controllers are manufactured in Switzerland and are used in homes, offices and factories all over the world.

"Technical management of buildings is not just about comfort. The main objective is the improvement of energy efficiency," Gassmann told "In Switzerland, energy consumption could be reduced by 30 per cent in buildings with existing technology. That would amount to a total energy saving of 12 per cent."

Sauter is one of the companies that specialise in cleantech in Switzerland – an expanding sector that accounts for 3.5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). But the total number of cleantech companies is hard to judge, partly because many firms like to project a green profile for image reasons.


Cleantech refers to technologies that are environmentally friendly and energy efficient.

This definition can be applied to production procedures, industrial products, services, agriculture and research.

The most important cleantech areas include renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste management and recycling, water management and sustainable mobility.

In Switzerland, the cleantech sector employs 4.5 per cent of the workforce and contributes 3.5 per cent to GDP.

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Strong competition

"Cleantech has become a fashion concept, but the actual phenomenon is certainly here for the long term," Rolf Wüstenhagen, a lecturer at the University of St Gallen’s Institute for Economy and the Environment, told

"Many of the global problems that we are faced with today - climate change, nuclear risks, population growth, urbanisation – will place increasing demand on clean technologies."

Both the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) believe that cleantech will have the highest growth of any sector in the coming decades. Already by 2020, the market will generate a turnover of CHF3 trillion ($3.2 trillion) worldwide. A variety of countries have therefore signed up to the new technologies.

Switzerland has been regarded as a cleantech pioneer for the last 20 years and has many companies operating in this field. Even today the country is ranked top as a top cleantech location.

But is has been overtaken in key energy sectors, such as solar and wind power, by other European countries in the course of the last decade - especially Germany, Denmark, Italy and Spain, which have strongly promoted the development of renewable energies. And increasingly, Asian countries have emerged as new competitors.

Public backing

"In the last 10 to 15 years there has been a heavy redistribution of wealth from West to East. China and other Asian countries now have large financial reserves, which have allowed them to position themselves in these future industries,” explained Wüstenhagen.

"This is reflected by the takeover of Oerlikon Solar and Landis + Gyr, which have been partially purchased by Japanese enterprises, or by German cleantech companies that have changed hands to Chinese, Korean or Indian control."

Wüstenhagen extolled the advantages Switzerland has over competitor countries. "First of all, we have an extremely high quality in scientific research. Switzerland also has sufficient capital to invest in cleantech, while other countries, such as Spain or Italy, must first solve their economic problems,” he said.

“Finally, the Swiss population is more highly sensitised to environmental problems compared to the United States and China and supports the development of clean technologies."

Last year saw the presentation of the government’s Energy Strategy 2050, which highlighted the importance of cleantech. But paradoxically, there are interests groups that are trying to apply the brakes and fight against the promotion of renewable energies. These include not only the nuclear power lobby, but also the business lobby organisation economiesuisse.

"This resistance is incomprehensible given that we purchase about CHF10 billion of oil from abroad every year,” says Nick Beglinger, president of the Swiss Cleantech lobby association. Heat pumps, solar power plants and improvements in building energy efficiency could benefit many Swiss companies and create jobs."

Promotion in Switzerland

In 2010, the Swiss government launched a cleantech master plan to promote both the development of clean technologies and of Switzerland itself as a world leader in this sector. But there have been no concrete action plans as yet.

According to the new energy strategy, presented in 2012, the government is obliged to promote cleantech, especially in the fields of renewable energy and energy saving, with the aim of phasing out nuclear power and halving the nation’s energy consumption by 2050.

In 2012, the centre-left Social Democratic Party also tabled the cleantech promotion initiative entitled: "New jobs thanks to renewable energy". This initiative promises to meet half of the country’s energy requirements from renewable sources by 2030. According to the initiative’s authors, this could create some 100,000 jobs.

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Cleaning up cleantech

A lack of skilled labour is currently holding back progress in the cleantech sector. Only a few colleges offer training opportunities. "To date, there are no real studies in the field of building automation," says Felix Gassmann. "Companies and associations are therefore forced to shoulder the burden of training."

Another issue the cleantech sector has to face up to is lack of transparency that makes it hard to determine which companies are really producing clean technologies. "We are only just starting to think about introducing a quality seal,” Beglinger admits.

"This is proving a very difficult task. We not only have to gauge the scale of resources being used in production, but also the energy efficiency of the products themselves and whether the companies meet required standards,” said Beglinger.  "Any company could label themselves as ‘cleantech’, whether they be a bakery, a butcher's shop or a bank."

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