37: Nuclear to hydroelectric to fossil to wind to solar power

Fly over Europe in this thing? Sure, why not?  Today, Switzerland proudly completed a solar-powered flight from its westerly region to Madrid, although why anybody would land in Madrid when perfectly delightful places such as Barcelona, Granada and Seville are so handy is beyond me. Source: AFP

Switzerland has 18 years to figure out how to make up almost half of the country’s electrical supply that will be lost when it closes its nuclear reactors.

Who can argue with the shutdown?  A nuclear meltdown in Switzerland would not have the dissipating effects of an ocean to float over for a year before making landfall. Instead, the DNA-altering radiation would funnel down in the valley between the Jura Mountains and the Swiss Alps, making Provence and its lovely vineyards but a memory. Good-bye Geneva, the United Nations, the Red Cross and Shania Twain’s home in Montreux.

The Swiss are looking to hydro-electric and fossil fuels to make up the 40 per cent power shortfall expected when the reactors go quiet, which might make environmentalists scream in agony, but there it is. The fact is people get testy when they turn on the light switch and nothing happens, and if this is true anywhere, it would be 10 times truer in Switzerland, the land where a train running two minutes late produces scowls and 15 minutes late is a national scandal. This is probably a good time to point out that Switzerland’s lauded rail system is powered by hydro-produced electricity, making it a non-emission producing transportation system. That’s how important electricity is here.

That does not mean the Swiss or the Europeans have waved the white flag on alternate energy. Europe as a whole is tinkering with it, although while the word “tinkering” might apply to the results produced, it is not the right word for the amount of money they’re putting into it. A better word would be “flooding.”

In 2010 and 2011 combined, Europeans chucked 25 billion Euros into wind power development, according to a report from the European Wind Energy Association. And for it, wind-sourced power  in 2011 comes in at 9,600 MW, while hydro-electric systems have delivered 179,000 MW. You can see that wind power has a long way to go, but one wonders how far it actually can go. It’s currently at around 6%, with expert forecasting optimal outputs at 20% of electrical energy requirements in about another 20 years. That’s still a long way from home.

It would be helpful at this point to learn how much money is going into the hydro-electric infrastructure system, but that is a harder one to peg. With wind, the numbers relate to new installations. With hydro-electric, it includes upgrades, maintenance and installations. It’s not an apple-to-oranges measure, although one could argue the merits of either system can be weighed based on money spent to MW-production. That seems like a good idea. But it is sunny outside, so I am not going to do the math on that. This is but a tiny little blog.

Here is where I stop quoting investment and output figures, because the numbers vary depending on who is writing the report. For example, the European Commission says only 19 billion Euros have been invested in wind power over 30 years, while the EWEA offers much higher figures. Frans Van Hulle, technical director at the EWEA says that wind is poised to become a mainstream energy supply, but then says it is only a nibble of the Euro-energy diet at three per cent.

I’m not an engineer, but when I see authoritative sources dueling over their stats and then making grandiose statements like Van Hulle’s, I suspect there might be more sales pitch and less science in their report.

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42: Nuclear Nixed

Switzerland already uses solar power the old-fashioned way – with clotheslines. This rooftop clothesline is in the city core.

Switzerland derives 40 per cent of its electric power from six nuclear reactors* – all of which are slated for shutdown by 2030 as decided in a recent plebiscite. That gives the Swiss 18 years to figure out where to make up that considerable energy shortfall, and so they are looking into amping up their hydro-electric options.

A Swiss neighbourhood of row houses has multiple dedicated spaces for communal clotheslines. As a fan of sun-dried linens, I love this.

We tend to think of the frugal Swiss as energy-efficient what with their affection for public transport, train travel and these confounded greyish lightbulbs, but they’re not. On a global scale, they are 21st out of 217 countries in electricity consumption on a per capita basis. Canada is #4. Yes, we beat the Swiss in the hockey world championships this year and now they must deal with this added humiliation.

Before environmentalists jump on Canada for this, the reference point is for electrical consumption only, and that Canada is such a high consumer is related to its world-class hydro-electric infrastructure. Energy consumption correlates to national development, stability, industrialization and affluence, with the world’s saddest nations consuming the least power. I am waiting for David Suzuki to stand up and applaud Somalia for its “green” economy.

In the meantime, expect the Swiss to come up with something inventive to cope with their energy diet. They know how to make the most out of very little. They turned a landlocked, mountainous scrap of land into a world economic leader by selling things that can fit in your pocket: Drugs, watches and chocolate. ***

* Swiss media sources sometimes report the number of reactors at seven. The European Nuclear Society reports only five.

** Pharmaceuticals, not illegal drugs. This isn’t Mexico.

*** There is more to it than these three, of course. There’s also Swiss banking, cheese, ski resorts and the Red Cross. For such a small place, this country has a huge cultural footprint.