The Swiss referendum result in favour of phasing out nuclear power has been broadly welcomed by environmental campaigners. However, given that nuclear power accounts for more than a third of Swiss electricity generation, the decision is risky to say the least – it is on a par with Britain deciding to do away with gas power stations. Moreover, the decision will do nothing to lower Switzerland’s carbon emissions.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Swiss electricity is already among the lowest carbon emitters on earth – renewables (mainly hydroelectric) account for 64 percent of the country’s electricity, while fossil fuel accounts for just one percent. As the IEA notes:
“Because Switzerland’s energy-related CO2 emissions come mostly from oil use in transport and space heating, action is most needed in these areas. Commendably, the country is making polluters pay by using a CO2 tax for financing decarbonisation efforts in space heating. Stronger efforts will be needed to reduce emissions from private car use, however.”
Critics of the decision point to the difficulties involved in replacing 35 percent of Switzerland’s electricity generation with renewables. Hydroelectric is at more or less full capacity already. There is a limit to how much additional biomass can be burned, while intermittent wind and solar power would have to be scaled up massively from 0% and 2% of capacity respectively.
Swiss voters rejected concerns about the cost of scaling up renewables in this way. These could prove to be as high as an additional 3,000 Euros (£2,590) on an annual household bill. Even more worryingly, voters seem to have ignored the prospect of leaving Switzerland dependent upon electricity imports in future – not least because its current practice of greenwashing French nuclear power (using pumped storage to import French electricity for future use) cannot be expanded much further.
As with several other European states, including the UK, Switzerland is gambling that some (as yet unknown) European state will be generating excess electricity just at the point that it needs imports to keep the lights on. The other side of that gamble is the very real prospect of future Swiss (and UK) households having to shiver in the dark when the lights go out.