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Public slow to plug into renewable energy

(Keystone)

If attendance on the opening morning of Switzerland's first renewable energy fair is anything to go by, the planet is truly doomed.

At one point exhibitors outnumbered visitors – and all this in the country's green capital Lausanne, winner of a European gold medal in 2005 for its pioneering sustainable energy policies.

"We cover 66 per cent of the city's energy needs with renewable energy, but most people don't realise this at all," admitted Jürg Stierli from the city's industrial services department.

"It's not too late for people to change their way of thinking but we need to get a move on. The benefits of renewable energy are there to see and we need to make sure that the next generation doesn't think twice about it."

But how do you persuade a public, seemingly unfazed by a regular stream of apocalyptic reports about global warming, to sign up as well?

It is not down to a lack of options: the Energytech fair has around 40 stands offering everything from wood-fuelled boilers, solar panels and geothermal heating systems through to biogas, hydropower and wind turbines.

Unfortunately, says organiser Christophe Vuillermet, it has a great deal to do with cost.

"People want to change the way they do things but I don't think they are prepared to pay more for a hybrid car or a wood-burning heating system," he said.

"The government or the cantons need to step in with subsidies and help people make the switch to renewable energy."

According to the Federal Energy Office, most regional authorities do offer some sort of subsidy but this varies substantially from canton to canton. Each year the government makes SFr14 million ($11 million) available for renewable energy projects.

Tax credits

Bernard Vermeulen, sales representative for Lopper Kesselbau, which makes wood-fuelled boilers, says the Swiss should be following the example of neighbouring France. There, families that install wood-fuelled boilers or solar panels get back half the price in the form of tax credits.

"Over the past five years we have seen increasing interest in our boilers, partly due to the rise in oil prices and also out of concern for the environment, but it is still not enough," he said.

"You'd have to be mad not to believe that the climate is getting warmer. You only have to look at the Trient glacier – it's incredible how much it has shrunk over the past ten years."

A 35 kilowatt Lopper Kesselbau wood-fuelled boiler plus accumulator tank, sufficient for the needs of a mid-sized home, costs around SFr35,000. But Vermeulen says fuel costs are more than 50 per cent cheaper than oil or gas.

The need to take a long-term approach was not lost on 28-year-old technician Alexandre Nüssli, who is in the process of renovating his home.

He was keen to find out more about solar photovoltaic and thermal panels, as well as a wood-fuelled boiler.

"I'm set on doing this even though I know it's going to be expensive in the beginning. I want to build a home that is energy self-sufficient. The costs will balance out over time," he said.

Energy pioneer

Renewable energy pioneer Jean Oppliger from Cerneux-Veusil in canton Jura, who runs jura-energie.ch, converted 25 years ago.

He started with solar thermal panels, moved on to photovoltaic panels, which produce electric currents, and a wind turbine and now sells his excess renewable energy as far away as Winterthur and Bern.

Last year he produced 100,000 kilowatt hours of energy, of which he used only 14,000 for his farm.

But with customers paying a 50-centime supplement for his renewable energy, Oppliger admits "it's easier selling bread rolls than electricity".

"It can get a little frustrating but in a couple of decades there will be no more petrol and everyone will have to make the switch to renewable energy. We need to diversify and small energy holdings like mine are the future."

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Lausanne

In brief

Energytech – Switzerland's first renewable energy fair – is being held in 4,000 square metres of exhibition space at the Palais de Beaulieu in Lausanne and runs until Saturday.

More than 40 stands are presenting a wide range of renewable energy technology from wind turbines to geothermal heating systems.

Organisers say the aim of the event is to offer options and advice to those looking to build or renovate homes, as well as professionals wishing to find out more about renewable energy.

They hope up to 4,000 people will have attended by the time doors close.

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