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Cash drain hits renewable energy drive

Switzerland aims to boost renewable energy production by 2030 Keystone

Families seeking to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy face an increasingly desperate struggle for financial aid because of budget cuts.

This content was published on February 2, 2007 - 08:50

At a time of rising concern over global warming, cantonal subsidies for solar panels and wood-fuelled heating systems have fallen by more than 16 per cent in three years. Some regional authorities offer no help at all.

The situation has prompted the Green Party and renewable energy experts to accuse the government of lacking a coherent strategy on the issue – something it denies.

It is a stated goal of Swiss energy policy to increase the proportion of electricity produced from renewable energy by ten per cent over the next two decades.

But for households looking to install renewable energy devices, securing financial support is something of a lottery.

According to the government-funded Agency for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, only two-thirds of cantons offer subsidies – and these are shrinking.

Shrinking pot

The pot available for projects fell from SFr16.8 million ($13.5 million) in 2004 to SFr14 million last year – a drop of almost SFr3 million.

"We are very concerned about this," David Stickelberger, the agency's co-director, told swissinfo.

"About one-third of the cantons do not pay subsidies to citizens. Either they don't want to because they think other measures are more effective or they don't even have a legal basis on which to pay subsidies."

A list of the promotional offers in each canton, published last month by the Federal Energy Office, illustrates the patchwork nature of the subsidy system.

In Appenzell Inner Rhodes residents can apply for a SFr5,000 subsidy for a wood-fuelled boiler, whereas in Schaffhausen only SFr2,500 is available.

Zurich and Ticino offer no subsidies for smaller households, while Obwalden offers no support of any description.

Vaud and Lucerne, meanwhile, say their energy programmes are at a standstill because they have run out of money.

Energy use

Another problem, says Stickelberger, is that the amount of money available varies each year depending on how much is allocated in cantonal budgets. Under the federal system, the cantons are responsible for energy use in buildings.

"There is a lack of continuity in subsidisies – even during the course of a year," he explained. "For example, canton Solothurn has a subsidy for solar energy but they sometimes have to stop it in the autumn because the credit has been used up."

The agency says cantonal energy directors have tried to harmonise the subsidy system with only limited success. It argues that the government needs to play a more active role in coordinating strategy – a view shared by the Green Party.

"At the moment the cantons are relatively free to do as they wish and we say this is the wrong system – we need a stronger national policy," said Miriam Behrens, the party's deputy general secretary.

The Greens are also demanding a bigger national budget for energy projects. At present the government sets aside SFr14 million a year to be used as match funding by the cantons – "not enough", says Stickelberger. And there are no plans to increase this.

Coherent strategy

Responding to the criticism, Michael Kaufmann, the office's vice-director, strongly denied the absence of a coherent national strategy on renewable energy.

He said the government and the Federal Energy Office were working closely with the cantons to promote sustainable energy programmes. Combined federal and cantonal spending on projects, including renewable energy, last year amounted to SFr40 million, he added.

However, Kaufmann acknowledged that cantons were more or less free to decide where to spend their money, which might not include renewable energy sources.

"It is our daily task to work together with the cantons and to push them in the right direction [on renewable energy]," he said.

At the same time Kaufmann conceded that it was "absurd" that cantonal subsidies had fallen by almost SFr3 million since 2004.

"We have a parliament that tells us to do more for renewable energy but they are cutting our budget every year. This is a political contradiction and it is out of our control," he said.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

In brief

Almost every canton offers tax breaks for use of renewable energy and energy efficiency in buildings but not all them provide subsidies, says the Swiss renewable energy agency.

It says some cantons, among them St Gallen and Graubünden, are discussing the reintroduction of subsidy schemes.

The Green Party has launched half a dozen popular initiatives at a cantonal level calling for an increase in subsidies

SwissEnergy, the government body promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy, has seen its budget cut from SFr65 million in 2001 down to SFr45 million.

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Key facts

A 35 kilowatt wood-fuelled boiler plus accumulator tank, sufficient for the needs of a mid-sized home, costs around SFr35,000.
Currently, 58% of Swiss electricity comes from renewable energy sources, with hydropower by far the largest contributor.

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