Country Briefing: Switzerland

Swiss website

Energy for Humanity has launched a Swiss website on (in German)

Energy Overview

Switzerland has one of the cleanest electricity generation systems in the world. Indeed, more than 90 percent of Switzerland’s emissions come from transportation fuels and industry, not from power generation. This is mainly due to the country’s plentiful hydro-resources and five nuclear power units, which provided 60 and 33 percent of the country’s electricity in 2015.

The country produces around 65 terawatt hours of electricity per year, or 8 megawatt hours per capita per year. Net imports and exports vary a great deal, between 6 TWhs of imports and 6 TWhs of exports, depending for example on how good a year for hydro power it has been. What is even more interesting is that the imports and exports over the year vary between 30 and 90 TWhs per year, but that they are quite similar each year, signifying that the country is a major electricity transfer hub between countries in Europe. Indeed, the imports and exports sometimes exceed the total production of electricity in Switzerland. Switzerland also imports a significant amount of nuclear power from France via long-term contracts, up to 15 TWh per year. These contracts will run until the end of lifetime of the plants in France and the amount of electricity is very predictable. A large share of the exports are day ahead peak hydro power exports, making best use of market price fluctuations, so even if the amount of imports and exports are similar over the course of the year, one can claim that nuclear power is more important in the Swiss mix than generally expected.

Emissions Overview

Given that Switzerland’s electricity is mostly clean (4 Mtons Co2), most of the country’s emissions come from transportation (~17 Mtons) and industry (~16 Mtons), and to a lesser extent, manufacturing and construction (~5 Mtons). Total emissions have remained roughly the same, between 50 and 54 Mtons per year during the 2000s. Per capita emissions have been decreasing by roughly one percent per year since 2000.

Emissions from electricity and heat production have remained level at under 60 gCO2-eqv/kWh during the 2000s. Emissions from transportation have not decreased much, while emissions from manufacturing, construction and other fuels (industry) emissions have been dropping by almost two percent per year on average.

Currently (2011 data), Switzerland emits roughly half per capita (4.6 tons/year) what Germany does (8.9 tons/year), and is slightly cleaner than France (5.2 tons/year). It is one of the cleanest developed countries in the world.

The world energy council makes a ranking of the world-wide electricity mixes with their “Energy Trilemma Index”. Switzerland has claimed the #1 spot for the last five years, a large part due to the fact that the electricity mix is ultra low carbon.

Emissions dynamics of Switzerland

Any net exports replace dirtier fossil-fuel based production in neighbouring countries. Also, the country’s ample hydro-capacity acts as a grid stabilization and can act as a load-following capacity for intermittent wind or solar power generated domestically or from nearby countries. Countries like Germany, Italy and Denmark have almost ten times as high emissions from electricity production as does Switzerland.

If nuclear power in Switzerland was to be shut down, it would to a large part be replaced by direct coal burning in neighbouring countries (other parts would be nuclear power from France). From this point of view, nuclear and hydro save almost 20 and 40 million tons of CO2, respectively, each year. Combined, this is roughly 1.5 times the amount the rest of Switzerland emits (manufacturing, industry and transportation combined). Nuclear alone saves almost 20 Mtons, the same amount that is currently emitted from Swiss transportation sector, when compared to burning fossil fuels.

What’s next?

After Fukushima, the Green party in Switzerland has proposed a “nuclear phase-out initiative” that would limit the life-time of current nuclear power plants to 45 years and forbid any future nuclear technology to be built in Switzerland, ever. This initiative will be voted on publicly on 27 November 2016. It would lead to Switzerland forcing a third of its clean electricity production to shut down by 2029 – well before its planned life-time. Switzerland has been planning to build more nuclear power plants in the future, and most of the current plants would have much longer operating lifetimes than proposed. A ban on nuclear would tie a lot of resources to something that has already been taken care of: The virtually carbon free Swiss electricity sector. Switzerland can’t reduce its emissions from electricity simply because its electricity sector is already clean.

The “nuclear phase-out initiative” aims to force nuclear closures without any consideration for economics or safety. One of the key arguments for it is that it will be more economical to replace nuclear energy with renewable energy. The initiative refrains to mention that if this is indeed the case, then the nuclear plants will be closed anyway, because it will be economically viable to replace them with other sources of energy. The evidence is also clear on the safety: Swiss nuclear power plants are among the safest in the world, as shown by EU Stress tests performed after Fukushima.

The Swiss government needs an energy and climate plan that tackles the actual sources of emissions in Switzerland: transportation and industry. The current plan, along with the initiative by anti-nuclear activists, concentrates on spending resources in re-building something that is already clean. This needs to change, if any of the agreements made in Paris 2015 are to be met.