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Walking with the wind

Galloping horses are a side attraction for hikers taking to the trail

(Keystone Archive)

The Bernese Jura offers an exciting wind and solar energy tour, featuring Switzerland's largest Aeolian and solar power stations.

In the space of an hour, the Discovery Trail takes the visitor from Switzerland's largest solar power station, located on Mont-Soleil, to the country's biggest Aeolian facility on Mont Crosin.

The didactic tour begins in the small town of St-Imier, situated in an area of the Bernese Jura hills known as the "Franches Montagnes", which are famous for their horses.

The easiest way to access the start of the trail is to take the funicular train, which brings you from the centre of St-Imier to Mont Soleil, at an altitude of 1,289 metres above sea level.

Switzerland's largest solar power station was built on this mount, because it has an exceptional 1,700 hours of sunshine annually. In contrast, the town of Biel, which is situated at the foot of the Jura, only has about 900 hours of sunshine every year.

The Mont-Soleil photovoltaic power station, built in 1991, was co-financed by canton Bern, the National Fund for Energy Research and several renewable energy companies. It involved a SFr8 million investment without return (loss-making).

R and D

The station's primary function is research and development, although it could theoretically provide up to 200 homes with electricity. But the energy produced in Mont-Soleil is not sold to individuals or companies, because it is seven times more expensive to produce than hydraulic or nuclear electricity. So instead, it is simply injected at a loss into the national grid.

The Mont-Soleil station, which is entirely autonomous, is also aimed at raising public awareness about the potential of renewable energies. With its 12 different information points, the Discovery Trail contributes to this didactic function.

Rambling through pastures

The Discovery Trail takes you from Mont-Soleil's solar power station to the wind power station, which consists of six Aeolian turbines. The walk, which lasts about an hour, is pleasant, easy and well marked. It can be done in winter as in summer.

Besides taking the visitor through pastures and pine forests, the hike also offers a splendid view of the Jura's highest peak, the Chasseral, at 1,600 metres above sea level.

The first turbine on the trail was built by the Juvent company in 1996 and has already produced 4 million Kilowatts/h. Together with the five other turbines that have been installed since, the site produces 35 per cent of Switzerland's renewable energy, while Mont-Soleil's solar station accounts for five per cent.

This means electricity for 1,700 households, and good publicity for the firms which invested in sponsoring, and use some of the electricity produced.

The wind turbines themselves weigh 60 tonnes and are 67 metres high. The rotating blades are 22 metres long, and need to perform more than 28 rotations per minute to turn wind into electricity.

After visiting the wind power station, the easiest way to retrace one's footsteps is either to walk back to Mont-Soleil, or to catch a bus down to St-Imier. But in these remote parts, hitchhiking might get you home sooner!

by Jeff Nottage

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