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Power to the people

A couple of years ago lightning created a magnetic field that enveloped the dam of Lago di Lei.

All the electrical monitoring equipment was fried. That's the only real mishap here in almost 50 years of operation. "When I tell people the dam was built by Italians they laugh," said Gion Grischott, the Swiss station manager with Kraftwerke Hinterrhein (KHR), the company that owns and runs the dam. "But they did a fantastic job. It really is perfect."

I had been looking forward to learning about this dam ever since I started investigating the Swiss borders. Zoom in on Google Earth and you see a most peculiar thing. The lake and its outflowing river are entirely Italy. But the border takes a sudden jump so that the dam is inside Switzerland. It's like a Swiss bite into Italy. What was the story?

It turns out that in the late 1950s and early 60s the dam was built to provide electricity to Switzerland. Italy imposed four conditions. It had to be built by Italians, designed by Italians, use Italian materials, and Italy had to own 20% of the production. This was all fine, but when the Swiss army was consulted they pointed out that any breach in the dam would flood Switzerland, wiping out towns and raising the level of Lake Constance. The dam must be on Swiss territory for the Swiss army to defend it. So land was exchanged, square meter for square meter. Now that mystery is solved.

I've also been wanting to learn more about Swiss use of hydropower. Gion explained the system here, which is far more than meets the eye. The big lake itself – the third largest reservoir "in" Switzerland – is connected by tunnels with smaller lakes and streams in neighboring valleys. Water is captured all over the region and flows through these tunnels into Lago di Lei, sometimes generating electricity along the way. Likewise, water exits through tunnels and goes through turbines on its way to another series of lakes. At night, when cheap wind energy is available from Germany, water is pumped back up to Lago di Lei or another of these lakes. Each drop of water can pass through turbines several times this way. The beauty of hydropower (besides being clean) is that it is instant on and off, so this system exists only to supply energy at periods of peak demand – like when people get up in the morning. Other power plants can't respond with such speed.

I mentioned to Gion how Beno had told me that in his region 90% of the water was already captured for energy. Was this realistic? Gion said yes, absolutely. Switzerland, too, is totally tapped out for hydropower. Thanks to the Swiss initiative system, Gion doesn't think any new dams are possible. Here you need just 100,000 signatures to put anything on the ballot. Gion thinks the environmental lobby would persuade people not to allow any new dams. So all that's left is minor tweaks in efficiency. From Gion's perspective, the only good solution to the energy crisis is reducing demand.

But he's worried about another thing, too. He's seen a lot of changes in weather and snowmelt patterns in the last years due to global warming. Combine these with the vanishing glaciers – glaciers act like sponges for precipitation – he thinks there will be much more damaging flooding to come.

Switzerland is run by its people. KHR may be a powerful consortium of big energy companies, and yet it was only given control of this operation for 80 years. After that all of the equipment must be turned over in good working order to the communities that own the water in these valleys. In the meantime, the company had to provide roads, free electrical hookups to every house, and jobs to people from the local valleys. No matter how big they are, it's not the corporations who hold ultimate power here, it's the people.

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