Swiss pursues home-grown energy - reluctantly

STORY: As the energy crisis looms over Europe, Switzerland is looking at home-grown energy.

But could that affect its picture-perfect alps?

A focus on hydropower has helped shelter the Swiss from soaring oil and gas costs compared to others.

But the country is far from immune.

So, the government is pushing to pivot away from fossil fuels and ramp-up renewable energy output.

That means using the Alps' unique geography to develop solar power and expand hydropower.

Simonetta Sommaruga is the Swiss Energy Minister.

“I think in our country, especially also with the Alps, we can produce solar power for winter in the Alps and we have all the huge potential to have solar power on our buildings, so, if we can use solar power and hydropower together, this I think is really the 'dream team' of Swiss energy production.”

A successful pivot to a clean, independent energy supply would help cement Switzerland's position as a high-end economy at the heart of Europe.

But implementing change isn't easy.

Locals are worried about disruptions to biodiversity or blighting the overall landscape of the postcard-ready Alps.

And Switzerland's system of direct democracy means projects can be blocked at the local level.

It can take years to even get approval to raise a wall on an existing dam.

New legislation will help approve large solar projects in the mountains but it's up to the cantons – or provinces – to approve them.

“Of course, it’s always to have a good balance with the protection of nature as well, but we have the possibility to have more storage possibility and also more hydropower production. But of course, we can also boost our solar power.”

Switzerland's potential to harness energy from its own resources is on full display in Valais.

This 935-foot-tall dam holds 400 million cubic meters of water which can supply around 400,000 houses for a year.

Amedee Murisier is head of hydropower at energy company, Alpiq.

“We all know that the coming winter is going to be pretty tense in terms of electricity supply. We are going to keep as much water as we can to go through the winter. Switzerland is putting in place what they call a water reserve. So we are going actually physically store water, keep water in the dams for late in the winter to make sure that we are not in a tight spot.”

Renewables currently take up a quarter of Switzerland's total energy supply.

That puts it ahead of leading economies like Germany and France, but it still lags behind Norway and Iceland, according to OECD data.

Experts like Christian Schaffner from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, say there needs to be a stronger push towards renewables.

“If you want to make electricity supply in the future that is really sustainable, we need to go into renewables and that of course, includes photovoltaics PV. And this has not been done as quickly as we maybe should have done.”