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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Spectacular ice show

Have a seat. It's ice outside.

Switzerland’s cold snap drags on, but a “deep freeze” that hovers around -15 C does not exactly excite terror in this former Winnipegonian to whom -15 C is a perfect temperature for all-day cross-country skiing. Seriously, Europe, wake up and build a better infrastructure for winter. It does come around every year.

There is one thing, however, that is hard to beat and it is ice-cladding, which frankly, scares the daylights out of me.  Not much to do about this but break out the blowdryers and chisels. Here’s a photo from a photo-fan website. Click here to see more. 

NOTE: I’m having trouble with the ice-links, however, here’s another go at it. Hope these come through. 

Switzerland's ice storm: Showing New York that a "boot" is not the worse thing that can happen to your car.

Lake Geneva transformed into frozen landscape, literally, by blustery winds and freezing temps.

Switzerland's deep freeze.

Tourist burn-out in Montreux

A classic Montreux old-quarter building. How it disgusted us.

It may have been the hosing-down rain, the blasts of wind intensifying as it whistled in through the castle’s torture chamber keyhole openings or the fact we have been in Europe for six weeks now, but at about 5:23 p.m. May 14th, we reached saturation point.

Walking the deserted narrow cobblestone streets that braid their way down the steep-pitched Montreux mountainside, we looked on fairytale clusters of stone buildings, accented with aubergine and cherry shutters, inviting shop windows with unique teacup and hen pottery figures.

It was then that we reached the conclusion we were not suitably amused by the famous enclave that has been home to Shania Twain, her notorious ex Mutt Lange, Freddie Mercury, Bill Gates, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ernest Hemingway and other luminaries. What did they see in this place that is called the “Swiss Riviera.”

When tangerine-coloured buildings no longer appeal to you, it's time to take a break.

Looking at the photos this morning, I realize it was all fatigue and no-common-sense that put us in that dour mood. The place is lovely.

We got off the train at Montreux during the lunch hour and made the steep walk down to the water for the requisite visit to the tourist office, which I am pleased to report was actually open. We have found a surprising number of tourist offices that are closed on weekends. The one in the Paris train station read it was “exceptionally” closed the Saturday we were there – by exceptionally they may have meant it was unusual to be closed that day of the week, but we think the French just like to polish up their every move, hence their tourist office closing stands out from all other tourist-office closings by being “exceptional.” In retaliation, we were “exceptionally” put out.

But to get back to this weekend’s wanderings:  Montreux has two “old towns,” a 19th-century quarter and further up the steep slopes, the 16th century village where our appreciation for old-architecture topped up. Looking at the bell tower of a stone church, I felt that my ancestors were absolutely right to leave this  continent at about the same time this place was laying its foundations. Who builds up this high, I wondered?

Of course, building among the clouds was likely part of why this settlement succeeded. They could see trouble coming from a far-off distance and plan their defense accordingly.

It was around 6 p.m. when we trolled these streets, which were empty due to torrential rainfall. Either that, or they knew we were coming. Why did this not enchant us? Tourist-burn-out.

Montreux is on the waterways that connect England and France to Italy, hence it has always been an important trade route and is home to a castle that has been part of that history for a thousand years.

I will write more about that tomorrow, but for now will leave off with photos that demonstrate the little-recognized phenomenon of tourist-burn-out, a condition that can only be treated by gazing on 1970s architecture, horrifying a remedy as that may be, it is the only thing that will recapture our appreciation for ancient European architecture.

Real travel tip: Montreux’s slopes are not only heart-stoppingly beautiful, they are also capable of stopping your heart. A 12-week cardio-and-strength-training regimen is recommended as preparation to walk these cobblestones. I wish I was joking about this.

We will have to stare at this modern monstrosity in order to regain our appreciation for 16th-century architecture. Ugh.

Hopefully this child never has to know the horrors of living in a modern apartment block, where the word "block" truly applies. See right.