The tense economic situation and the high supply of subsidised energy from solar, wind, and coal in Europe has made it difficult for Swiss hydropower to remain economically competitive. The facilities and production of future hydropower projects must be more flexible in order to successfully face an uncertain market and to increase the security of supply in Switzerland.
This can be accomplished by enhancing existing power plants, expanding existing reservoirs by dam heightening, and constructing new pumped storage facilities.
More than half of the hydroelectric power production in Switzerland comes from storage power plants. Their electricity is available for use at any time and can be tapped into during peak demand. Switzerland, with its numerous storage reservoirs, controls the largest amount of stored capacity of the Alpine countries and therefore plays a leading role in the supply of peak energy in Europe. As nuclear energy is phased out in Switzerland, as called for by the Energy Strategy 2050 framework, the energy gap it leaves will be filled by hydroelectric power along with geothermal, solar, and wind energy. However, wind and solar energy are greatly dependent upon weather conditions and therefore subject to large, short-term fluctuations. Hydropower is much more flexible! To ensure the stability of the power grid and the security of supply in the future, the capacity of existing plants and the volume of existing reservoirs must increase. Thereby, Switzerland could take over more and more the function of a battery in the European grid.
Lack of winter energy
Switzerland is currently unable to supply all of its energy needs during the cold winter half year, importing a considerable amount of energy from neighbouring countries every winter for the last 12 years. Each of the last 10 years, energy production has fallen short of consumption by 11%, or 3700GWh, on average. Swiss purchasing rights from French nuclear power plants currently help fill this need. However, this shortage of winter energy will increase in the future, especially due to the exit of nuclear energy. Through an increase of the storage capacity, more energy abundant in summer could be used to fill reservoirs and boost winter production. This would increase supply security and have a large impact on Switzerland’s international competitiveness.
Expanding current reservoirs is key
The building of new reservoirs in Switzerland is only possible to a limited extent. Therefore, the required storage capacity for the near future must be met by the heightening of existing dams. Several dams in Switzerland have already been heightened:
With only minor heightenings (adding less than 10% of the original dam height) of about 20 of the 160 existing large dams, winter production could be increased by over 2TWh or 10% compared to today. This increase could even reach 15% by heightening some of the dams a bit more than 10%. Thus, by expanding current storage reservoirs, the winter electricity deficit could largely be erased.
Are new dams and reservoirs still possible?
New, high elevation glacial lakes are emerging due to glacier melting. These new natural reservoirs can become dangerous if the end moraine is overrun by water, uncontrollably and quickly emptying into the valley below. New dams in these areas could both prevent disasters and be a source of clean energy, establishing storage reservoirs that allow for excess wind and solar energy to be stored and used during peak demand. Thus, lakes exposed by glacial retreat, the unfortunate product of climate change, could actually be used to provide clean energy in the decades to come. Along with enhancing electricity supply security, storage reservoirs help to regulate water flow during periods of draught and flooding. Thus, new dams and storage reservoirs are multipurpose projects that go beyond simple energy production.
One project that has already been under study is located at the foot of the Trift Glacier, which, due to receding, has unveiled a large natural lake. An arched dam around 180m high could be constructed which would provide 220GWh of flexible energy, able to be used when needed during peak hours of demand. The Trift Glacier is part of the KTI project FLEXSTOR, within the SCCER-SoE framework and together with the KWO. The research project aims to increase the flexibility of hydroelectric power operations in Switzerland through the development and testing of innovative strategies.