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Geneva converts to clean energy

Geneva is determined to switch to renewable forms of energy, like hydroelectric power.

(www.sig-ge.ch)

The use of renewable energy will receive a big boost when Geneva becomes the first Swiss canton to allow customers to choose the source of their electricity.

This will be the first time in Switzerland that all consumers in a given area will get to decide how their energy is produced. It is also the first time that the default energy will be 100 per cent renewable - in this case hydroelectric.

"This gives every citizen a stake in his own future," says Robert Cramer, the cantonal environment minister.

"It's taken some time to integrate the people's choice into our energy policy, but now their patience is being rewarded," he added.

Referendum

The new system, called SIG Vitale, will be introduced by Geneva Industrial Services (SIG) on June 1, less than four months before the Swiss people vote in a referendum on the liberalisation of the electricity market.

In the run-up to the vote, SIG is hoping to demonstrate that it is possible to be competitive and ethical at the same time.

"Launching these products ahead of the vote helps us to educate people and make them more sensitive to the issues surrounding the energy of tomorrow," says Raymond Battistella, director general of SIG.

All customers will be able to opt for one of four colour-coded kinds of electricity - three of them entirely ecological.

Savings

The default option, which is 100 per cent hydroelectric, will be Blue. At one centime per kilowatt hour cheaper than the current electricity, it will save a family of four around SFr36 a year.

The Yellow option's selling point is that it will be produced in the canton, and therefore will sustain local producers. The more expensive Green choice offers a combination of renewable energy sources - solar, wind, as well as water - that will help to fund the development of these alternative forms of power.

The fourth option, dubbed SIG Mix, is the electricity currently in use, which uses a combination of renewable and non-renewable sources. It is likely to be attractive to big energy consumers in industry, though SIG says it will try to convince companies to use green energy so they can market themselves as environmentally friendly.

While Geneva is not the first to offer consumers green energy - a number of other countries and cantons have offered "niche products" for small sections of their population - no one has done it on such a scale.

Sustainable development

"What we're trying to do here is achieve a complete change in consumer habits, moving as much as possible towards 100 per cent renewable energy," Battistella told swissinfo.

The change is in line with the cantonal government's commitment to sustainable development, and its desire to phase out the use of nuclear power.

"We have made a choice to orient ourselves towards sustainable development. We're putting into action our conviction," says Battistella, adding that the move is also strategic.

"Our move takes a bit of courage, but our research shows that Geneva is mature enough for it. Ultimately it's the people who will decide how they want to be sourced. If we can keep costs realistic, people will opt for renewable energy," he adds.

Nuclear ban

In 1986, the Geneva constitution was changed to ban the construction of nuclear power plants on its territory. But 16 years later, 28 per cent of the electricity consumed in the canton comes from nuclear power stations.

That figure should fall considerably come June, when some 70 per cent of inhabitants will be using the "blue" hydroelectric energy, with ten per cent each opting for the Green and Yellow options.

But how can consumers be sure they are receiving the electricity they have signed up for? The simple answer is, they cannot. But SIG says it will guarantee that the electricity in the network corresponds exactly to what has been purchased.

"The electrons won't turn blue just because you have signed up for SIG Vitale Blue," says Battistella. "Our commitment is that we will put on the network exactly what the customer buys, and this will be certified by independent surveyors."

So it is all a question of proportion. As long as consumers somewhere in Geneva are buying SIG Mix, there will be some electricity from non-renewable sources in the system. But the hope is that this will continue to decrease, until one day it is no longer required.

by Roy Probert


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