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Swiss citizens back initiative to boost renewable energy generation


Swiss voters approved a new federal law on Sunday, aiming to increase the domestic production of renewable energy. This law will have significant effects on electricity bills, alpine landscapes, and climate protection. It aims to boost wind and solar power's current miniscule contribution to Switzerland's energy mix and rapidly increase hydro production, so the country is less dependent on imported electricity, especially on winter.

Production of solar and wind power in Switzerland compared with eight neighboring countries (Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Luxemburg, France, Italy, Czech Republic) in 2023.

Impact on buildings and solar energy

The new legislation stipulates that by 2035, renewable sources should generate at least 35 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity, rising to 45 TWh by 2050, about six times the amount produced in 2022. The bulk of this green energy will come from solar power, with over 80% of solar projects planned for existing structures like residential buildings and shopping centers.

However, the requirement to install solar panels is not universal. It applies only to new buildings with a ground surface area over 300 square meters. This measure was initially introduced in 2022 under the parliament’s “Solar-Express” initiative to accelerate renewable energy adoption.

Role of hydropower and new dams

Dams will continue to be essential for Switzerland's winter electricity supply, with hydroelectric production projected to increase from 37.2 TWh in 2023 to 39.2 TWh by 2050. The law fast-tracks 16 hydropower projects already agreed upon by the federal government, cantons, environmental associations, and electricity companies. These projects include the expansion of 13 existing power plants and the construction of three new dams in the Alps, one of which is near Zermatt in Valais, under the shadow of the Matterhorn.

Environmental and biodiversity considerations

The new law prioritizes nationally significant solar and wind farms over nature and landscape protection under certain conditions, facilitating the development of large-scale installations in the Alps and forests. Alpine solar installations provide a significant advantage, generating large amounts of electricity during the winter when lowland solar panels are often obscured by fog. Wind power also produces most of its electricity during winter months.

Critics, including a few smaller environmental groups, argue the law will fast-track large-scale energy projects and see Switzerland's pristine Alpine landscapes plastered with wind turbines and solar panels. Contrary to opponents' fears of a landscape dominated by wind turbines, a study by ETH Zurich indicates that approximately 460 turbines would suffice.

The government said projects would be examined on a case-by-case basis and constructing large installations in "biotopes of national importance" and migratory bird reservations will remain banned, albeit with some exceptions.

Future of Swiss energy

Switzerland’s goal to eliminate fossil fuels increases electricity demand for heating and mobility, especially as the country phases out nuclear power, which currently supplies about one-third of its electricity. Predicting future electricity needs is challenging. Federal authorities estimate that by 2050, annual consumption will reach 76 TWh, up from around 67 TWh today. The Association of Swiss Electricity Companies forecasts 80–90 TWh, while a study by EPFL projects up to 110 TWh.

The increase in renewable electricity production is supposed to help Switzerland meet its climate targets However, additional measures are necessary to replace combustion engine vehicles and oil and gas heating systems with renewable alternatives effectively.

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