This week the Forum:Blog speaks with some of the people changing Switzerland’s landscape in the 21st century.

Reflecting on your time in office up until now: What has been the most far-reaching change in Switzerland’s “energy landscape” during this time?

The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power station in March 2011 had a huge impact on energy policy. After the catastrophe it was obvious to me that no more power plants could be built in Switzerland. After any serious accident, security standards are raised to reduce the residual risk. The same is true for nuclear power. This leads to an increase in the price of nuclear energy, while at the same time the prices of renewable energy sources are becoming competitive. The Federal Council and the Parliament have decided to phase out nuclear energy use gradually. Such a course is indeed technically feasible and economically sustainable, yet restructuring the energy supply system is still a demanding process.
So there is to be a gradual withdrawal from nuclear energy: What do the Swiss want to do better than their German neighbours?
We don’t have set deadlines in Switzerland. Instead, we are orientating ourselves according to the safety level of the actual plants. The five existing nuclear power plants will remain in the electrical grid as long as they can be operated safely. This will give us the time necessary for revamping the energy supply system.

What is the biggest challenge in this regard? How can the reduction in energy output be compensated for?

The whole energy mix has to be modified, not just the electricity itself. This means less fossil fuel consumption and as much domestic production as possible. We can replace the nuclear energy that is gradually being phased out by developing renewable energy sources and imports. The new renewable energy systems have great, albeit limited potential – one that we need to realise. Revamping the energy system will happen in stages. With the 2050 energy strategy, the Federal Council placed considerable emphasis on energy efficiency, development of hydropower, new renewable energy sources and, where necessary, the importation and use of fossil-fuel-based electricity production as a bridging measure. The first set of measures has been approved, focusing on consistently utilising energy efficiency in buildings, electrical appliances, industry and mobility as well as the on developing renewable energies. Implementation of the next stage is planned to begin in 2020.

What can the WEF contribute to this process?

Around the world, energy is an important resource that is becoming increasingly scarce, which is why it has been a central issue at the WEF for quite some time now. I really welcome that. It is important to clarify how we are going to deal with the increasing demand for energy. This is extremely important, not only from an economical, but also from an ecological standpoint. I am very glad that last January in Davos we were able to hold a panel discussion with the WEF on the topic of new sustainable energy models for cities and that we will be following up with that at the 2013 WEF. We are pursuing long-term collaboration.

Which renewable energies will play the most important role in Switzerland with regard to the electricity mix of the future?

Hydropower is already an important source of electricity production in Switzerland today. Targeted expansion can lead to an increase in production levels. Of course, not every single little stream in the country ought to be harnessed for this. What is important is implementing such projects where there is a good equilibrium of conservation and benefit. It is the responsibility of land-use planning to screen appropriate locations for renewable energy use. Sun, biomass, geothermal energy and wind-power likewise have potential. We intend to increase their share of electricity production through public funding measures. However, it is primarily the market that will have to decide what actually prevails. Above all, we are focusing on efficiency. Every kilowatt hour not consumed counts as profit. It is particularly with regard to buildings where, for example, using better insulation yields significant returns.

What is your assessment of the issue of energy imports? Will Switzerland actually be able to be less dependent on foreign imports?

A distinction has to be made between importing energy and importing electricity. When looking at the energy situation as a whole, Switzerland is highly dependent on foreign countries. We currently import a lot of crude oil, fuels and gas. We are continually striving to reduce petrol, diesel and gas imports. As far as the electricity mix is concerned, however, things look different. Electricity import agreements with foreign countries are gradually expiring. The direction the situation takes will depend on demand and other factors, among other things the question of how quickly we make strides in revamping the energy system. When it comes to this, I have a lot of faith in our economy, our technology and the spirit of our companies. They have always proven that they can react quickly to a changing environment. I believe in the innovative power of Switzerland.

From your perspective, how do you assess the sustainability of Swiss cities today?

Cities are confronted daily by increasing mobility and the increasing demand for energy. A lot has been done over the last few years. Cities are mindful of environmental aspects and are innovative, including when it comes to energy. For example, thanks to a new electricity production plant, Bern will soon be able to produce considerably more electricity for the region. Waste, wood and crude oil are being used to generate electricity, steam and district heating. Other cities are promoting pilot projects, for instance in geothermal energy, and investing in public transport. There is a lot going on, even with regard to city planning.

What do you see as the biggest risks for safe and sustainable energy provision in Switzerland?

The electricity market is becoming more and more European. That means that coordinated planning and collaboration is important for the production and transport of energy. The network has to be modernised and designed to achieve the necessary capacities. To ensure security of supply, greater awareness with regard to handling the resource of energy is required, or else consumption will increase or we will relapse into using fossil fuel energy sources. Finally, we have to find storage solutions. With our pumped storage plants we are in a good position, being well able to store intermittently accumulated energy from wind and solar power stations and thus, as the “battery of Europe,” becoming an object of interest for other countries.

What is your hottest tip for personal energy saving?

As with many things, start small. For example, shut off electrical appliances completely when they are not in use, rather than leaving them in stand-by mode. When it comes to new products, such as a car or washing machine, it is worth taking a close look at the energy information when purchasing. This will tell you about its energy efficiency. It is also worth having buildings assessed and then investing in them. This will lower energy costs.

Author: Doris Leuthard is the Former President of Switzerland (2010) and current Head of the Department of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications.

Image: Doris Leuthard