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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Making friends fast

As in so many places in the world, it is in Switzerland: It’s easy to make friends when it appears you’re carrying a 24-pack of beer.

This isn’t to say the quality of friends is that which your mother would approve whole-heartedly, but friends all the same.

It started when I gave  into my very North-American vice and picked up a 24-case of Coke Zero for about $13 – quite a bit more than in Canada, but as I said, it’s a vice and today I am missing a few of those.  With the case propped atop my right shoulder, I made the short walk back to our hotel.

Swiss soldier on the look-out for beer.

I didn’t get there before I heard two men shouting at me in German from a car waiting at a red light. The two, dressed in army fatigues  were waving me over enthusiastically, asking me to spare a beer or two for a soldier.  I look German, so I got away with laughing derisively at them before they drove away, all smiles, but no beer (or Coke).

The hotel manager, Reiner, and our helpful front desk clerk Daniela were on their break by the side of our hotel, and as I approached, their wide smiles and exultations expressed their mistaken belief that I was carrying some brewskies. Their faces melted in dismay when I came near enough they could identify the Coke Zero.

The dismay turned into shock when I told them that a. I’ve never carried a 24 of beer and b. generally, speaking I avoid alcohol.

“How can you live this way, how can you be happy?” they demanded to know.

“In wine is a cure for all things,” Daniela said, ” You don’t need vitamins, just wine.”

I can’t say that I agree  – too many tragedies, traffic fatalities, high levels of stupidity start with the bottle, but I’ve got nothing against the occasional glass so I promised to test Swiss wine at the coming autumn festivals.

In the meantime, Dave is spending his evenings reading to me from our favorite travel guru Rick Steves’ guide book, suggesting that this weekend we head up to one of Switzerland’s mountain-peak chalets where sixty beds are jammed into a four-bedroom house with shared baths, but the views are spectacular.

“Just pretend I’m Leslie,” I say.

Leslie is an Atlanta friend of ours who emancipated me from all socially induced pretense back in 1996 when she said to me, “Let’s not pretend that I will ever cook anything,” and “Camping? Never.”

Switzerland's famous Interlake region

Up to that point, I was under the delusion that a love of camping held some mystical virtue and cooking was a necessity, but happily Leslie showed me another way, and that way started with a firm  “No” to crazy ideas that would have me doing either, or anything even remotely resembling such. That includes booking into hostel-style accommodation.

So, no. We are not heading up to any mountain peaks this weekend, but instead will enjoy a train ride through the mountain range’s valleys. Much more civilized.

How friendly are the Swiss?

When the woman took a seat across from us on the train ride back from Murten, she looked normal.

She had come on with a pack of senior citizens, all rattling in lively conversation. She hovered over some people who we thought must be old friends, clutching about half-dozen twigs in her hand. They were only about two feet long – too short for basket-weaving.

Snug alleyway in Murten.

She then eyed our cluster of seats, flopped down with an exaggerated gasp of exhaustion, and appraised us silently with her enormous brown eyes. Her chin-length hair was auburn brown and her posture suggested she was fit, but she had bags under her eyes and what looked like a patch of skin cancer on her cheek – she could have been 55 or 80.

She addressed us in German, then raised her eyebrows at our fumbling response: “No German,” not meaning that there are no Germans, or that we refuse to associate with Germans, much less attempt the language.  She leaned closer, waved at the bundle of twigs and said in English,  “I put sticks  in and get wine. You know, sticks, water.”

No, we didn’t know, but we were sitting knee-to-knee within grabbing distance so we nodded politely and mentally calculated how long to the next train stop.

Was she insane? Would she pinch one of us by the arm and force more alcohol-related recipes on us?

As she pressed us into conversation with her not-totally-broken, but not quite all-there-English, we tried to not look like we were thinking about the distance to the next train station, but it didn’t work. She somehow deduced that our estimation of her mental faculties was not as it should be, even though neither of us gave into the rising urge to claw madly at the stop-buttons and demand the train doors open (we had already done that earlier on the ride into Murten).

She returned to the wine-twig topic and elaborated until her meaning became clear: That she would stick the twigs (dried vines) in the ground, water them, and eventually they would take root, produce grapes and then wine. She was not expecting to get wine from them that evening.

Swiss trains are spotless, their schedules and routes relatively easy to understand, but be ready for a sociable time as the Swiss love to chat.

Her mental stability established, we relaxed.

We have seen signs of such friendliness before. The day earlier,  in a grocery store line-up  a woman discerned our foreign-ness and invited us on a boat trip over Lake Biel. Suspicious North Americans that we are, we politely evaded the question, but we can’t help noticing that overall the Swiss are extraordinarily friendly.

Either that, or they are all stalkers-in-waiting. We shall see.