Switzerland should brace for blackouts

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As tensions mount between Russia and Europe over the raging war in Ukraine, Europe struggles to contend with Russia’s deliberate reduction in gas supply to the continent. What are Switzerland’s plans to mitigate the crisis? And what can Swiss residents expect this winter?


Switzerland’s Energy 2050 plan will not be able to save the country from what could be a cold, dark winter in 2022-2023. 


The Swiss should prepare for rolling blackouts this winter should Europe’s energy crisis intensify as the Russo-Ukrainian war rages on, according to the director of the VSE association of Swiss electricity companies Michael Frank, who spoke to reporters this week.



Gas supply issues


Even if the country is able to stave off most power outages, they should still plan for gas shortages as the Kremlin slashes its natural gas deliveries to Europe in an act of political retribution for Europe’s support of Ukraine.


Swiss officials warn that the gas crisis will intensify after Nord Stream 1, the critical gas import pipeline from Russia to Germany, shuts off the gas for a scheduled 10-day maintenance – scheduled to end July 21. Russia has already decreased its gas supply to Europe by 60 percent. In addition, countries including Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Slovakia have reported diminished energy supplies in recent months — and it is unclear whether the gas flows from Nord Stream 1 will be turned back on.


Russia’s use of energy blackmail and weaponization holds hostage a very dependent Europe that will be trapped in a deepening crisis for at least three to five years until it can build infrastructure for more energy independence, Swiss officials say.


As Russia’s natural gas supply accounts for 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas imports, extended disruptions and significant gas shortages will precipitate a bitterly cold winter, and the demand for natural gas is essential for heating during the coldest months. Nearly 50 percent of the gas used in Switzerland, or 15 percent of total energy consumption, comes from Russia.


Moreover, the uncertainty of future gas deliveries could trigger spiked energy prices, industrial shutdowns, nuclear power plant shutdowns, the re-opening of coal power plants (which affect many countries’ climate goals), and forced rations of gas supplies.


European officials are waiting on standby to see if Russia’s gas supply from Nord Stream 1 will turn back on this week after being shut down for “scheduled maintenance.”


The nuclear factor


In both Switzerland and France (where Switzerland sources a large portion of energy) nuclear power plants have been closed permanently or shut down for maintenance. The four still-active nuclear plants on Swiss soil create about 40 percent of the country’s electricity.


“Instead of phasing out coal and gas, developing renewable energies and continuing to rely on nuclear technology for base load – a system that has provided Germany with reliable and safe electricity for decades – Berlin made the decision to become dependent on Russia”, Natalia Amosova, an engineer and energy consultant wrote in an opinion piece for SWI info. Amosova says she is convinced that nuclear power is the clean and modern route to the current energy crisis, as well as reducing pollution caused by fossil fuels.


In an opposing opinion piece, Fabian Lüscher, head of the atomic energy department at the Swiss Energy Foundation (SES) writes “While the nuclear spirit of the 1960s is invoked in Switzerland in the name of a reliable electricity supply, half of the reactors in France are shut down for safety reasons.” Lüsher says those safety reasons need to remain at the forefront of Switzerland’s decision to continue in the nuclear vein.


Zürich and other Swiss cities may have to “go dark” at night to conserve energy usage.


Conservation efforts


Some countries have already imposed mandatory limits on energy consumption in a “quick fix” response to the growing problem. However, such restrictions will justifiably be unpopular because inflation will cause consumer prices to surge, which will strain governments even further.


Swiss officials in Bern this week announced that they will phase in increasingly stringent measures to conserve energy if needed.


The government will first launch a public conservation campaign and ask volunteers to cut back on energy consumption. In phase two, officials will restrict businesses from all non-essential energy usage such as illuminating store windows and using escalators. Phase three, if needed, would be ordering about 30,000 companies to find ways to cut 30 percent of their energy usage. As a last resort, Bern could turn off parts of Switzerland’s power network.


“You have to imagine this as a puzzle. Individual segments would be removed for four hours, then turned back on while others are removed. Some parts of the network — the pieces of the puzzle — would have no power for four hours, then have power again for four or eight hours again depending on the situation,” VSE’s Michael Frank said.


Companies operating with dual-fuel plants may be forced to switch to heating oil. The government could impose rationing if these measures do not adequately mitigate the crisis.


Suppose the Kremlin’s chokehold on Europe continues and European leaders do not find a solution to mitigate this strangulation. If so, the pandemic lockdowns will likely be followed by power outages, potential rations, soaring energy bills, and a plunging economic recession. European leaders must scramble to secure a sufficient alternative energy supply and hope this upcoming winter is not too brutal.


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