Switzerland’s Transition to Sustainable Energy

by Aurora Silva

Switzerland has a long tradition of using nuclear energy. With no reserves of coal, oil, or natural gas of its own, the country had to turn to other sources to meet its energy needs. As a result, a nation of only 8 million people— a bit larger in population than the state of Massachusetts— has five nuclear power plants, making Switzerland one of the top seven nuclear-powered nations on the planet on a per capita basis. Another telling statistic is that nearly 40 percent of Swiss electrical generation comes from nuclear power. To give a sense of what that proportion means, only 19 percent of US electricity is generated from nuclear power. The burning of coal has been of almost no consequence in Switzerland’s total energy mix for the past 50 years—in sharp contrast to the United States, where 44 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from coal. The country’s famed train and trolley systems are all electric, with the energy to power them coming nearly entirely from a combination of hydro and nuclear power. All told, nine percent of Switzerland’s total energy demand is met by nuclear power—a figure triple that of the United States. Switzerland has long met a good portion of its energy needs by using nuclear power. But in the wake of the accident at Fukushima, the country will have to turn elsewhere— while still remaining true to its history of self sufficiency and energy independence. This effort is made more complicated by fears that one of its traditional energy sources, hydropower, may no longer be as reliable as in the past. But with a combination of energy conservation, greater efficiencies, alternative energy sources, the “smart grid,” and the introduction of new technologies currently on the drawing board, the country may readily be able to replace the energy lost by the closing of its existing nuclear power plants. And the loss of the snowpack and glaciers (due to climate change) may not be as dire for Switzerland’s hydropower as first anticipated. A single “magic bullet” suitable for every purpose is not available. Switzerland most likely has to find its own energy supply mix with the biggest sustainability potential. For each technology and for brand-new technologies still on the drawing board such as kite power the best locations should be chosen to produce a well balanced energy mix that meets the country’s growing needs while combating climate change and preserving energy independence and at the same time being integrated into international European energy policy. Conservation, greater efficiencies, alternative energy sources, the smart grid, and the introduction of new technologies mean that Switzerland should be readily able to find ways to replace the energy lost by the closing of its existing nuclear power plants.

“Small Country, Big Challenge: Switzerland’s Upcoming Transition to Sustainable Energy” Dominic Notter, 2015,

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