Residents taking occupation of apartments at a new mixed-use property development on the site of a decommissioned paper mill in southern Zurich, Switzerland, are all encouraged to download a neighbourhood App to their mobile devices. The social media component, which allows Greencity residents and office workers to communicate with one another, along with the ability to contact their facility managers, are by far and away the most popular features.
However, the App has also given users the power to manage their household appliances remotely and to monitor their energy consumption in real time. These features have been added as part of efforts to align the site with the city’s goal of transitioning to a ‘2000-Watt society’ by 2050, which would translate to a daily primary-energy consumption of 48 kWh, or 2 kWh an hour. The equivalent figure in Europe currently stands at around 6 500 W.
As Zurich’s first 2000-W-certified property development, Greencity is hoping to prove the viability of the strategy through a combination of behaviour change and technological innovation. All energy consumed across Greencity is renewable, mobility is mainly public, non-motorised or shared, waste is recycled and the energy-efficiency solutions and materials have been integrated into all the offices and apartments currently rising across the site.
Losinger Marazzi director Jürgen Friedrichs, who has worked on the project on behalf of the developer for some ten years, says there are definite signs that having visibility of one’s consumption makes a difference. In fact, 43% of App users report that they have already changed some aspects of their behaviour as a direct result of the information provided.
Behaviour change and energy efficiency is also integral to Switzerland’s Energy Strategy 2050, which was put to a referendum in May 2017, and came into force on January 1 this year. The highest profile aspect of the strategy is undoubtedly the decision to withdraw, over a period, from nuclear energy. This is a significant change for Switzerland, which still sources over 32% of its electrical energy from nuclear, with most of the balance arising from hydropower (59%). The decision to decommission nuclear was, thus, precipitated by the catastrophic events at the Fukushima nuclear power station, in Japan, rather than a view to greater decarbonisation.
Switzerland’s new strategy aims to increase yearly generation from non-hydro renewable sources, such as solar photovoltaic (PV), waste, wood, biogas and some wind to 4 400 GWh in 2020 and 11 400 GWh in 2035. Yearly consumption in Switzerland currently stands at around 60 TWh. However, Swiss Federal Office of Energy senior energy efficiency policy officer Dr Lukas Gutzwiller says there are also ambitious targets for improving energy efficiency and reducing demand. Across the full energy sector the country is planning to lower energy consumption by 43% by 2035 against 2000 levels, despite yearly population growth of around 1% and economic growth of around 1.5%. Such decoupling will be led by the building and transportation sectors, where fossil fuels remain the mainstay of heating and mobility. Electricity consumption, by contrast, is forecast to fall by a more modest 13% in 2035 against 2000 levels. The decline is forecast despite an expectation that electric vehicle use will grow.
STATE OF FLUX
The new strategy means that the country’s electricity sector is in a “state of flux”, says Swissgrid board member and head of grid Maurice Dierick. This has significant implications for the company, which is responsible for a high-voltage transmission network that not only supplies Switzerland, but which is also interconnected with the European grid. Dierick warns that the expansion of grids in Europe, and Switzerland, is not keeping pace with electricity market integration.
Swissgrid is particularly concerned about the time it takes in Switzerland to secure approvals for major infrastructure projects, with Dierick highlighting that, in some cases, projects are delayed for decades. “The situation requires adaptation of the legislative framework,” he says, while expressing some optimism that the adoption of the Electricity Grid Strategy by the National Council and the Council of States could represent a step in the direction of speeding up approval processes.
Given the central geographical position of Switzerland in the European transmission network, Swissgrid also believes a more appropriate political framework is required between Switzerland and the European Union, without which the stability of the network could be undermined in the longer term.
Uncertainty over receiving permission to proceed with key infrastructure projects is also a concern for KWO, the operator of the large-scale Grimselwelt hydropower scheme, in the Alps. Deputy director Gian Marco Maier says the company is assessing two projects to add additional capacity and flexibility, which could help respond to the rising variability in supply associated with higher shares of variable renewable energy in the sector. Both projects face material public opposition, though.
However, other Swiss companies are starting to see significant opportunity arising from the road map outlined in the new energy strategy; one which implies far greater decentralisation of electricity supply as more low-cost variable renewable energy capacity is added. Interestingly, one of these companies aims to tap into the future of distributed power through the commercialisation of a battery storage system initially conceived in South Africa.
Battery Consult MD Cord-Henrich Dustmann reports that the start-up located in the small town of Meiringen, in the Canton of Bern, is hoping to begin the commercial production of a home-storage solution based on the so-called ‘Zebra battery’, which was first developed at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, in Pretoria.
InnovEnergy MD Max Ursin, whose company is already using the salt battery innovation for small-scale applications such as for powering music events, believes distributed storage will be required to provide the buffer Switzerland, and other countries, will need as the penetration of solar PV rises in the coming years. Such home- or office-based systems will not only capture the electricity produced well ahead of demand at peak mid-day periods, but will also offset the requirement for pumped hydro storage, where Switzerland is confronted with physical and social constraints to expansion.
The innovation and research cannot, and is not, ending with battery storage, however. While Greencity arguably represents best practice for now, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, or Empa, is actively pushing the energy efficiency envelope. To accelerate the innovation process in the building sector, Empa, with public and private partners, has invested in what it calls NEST, at its Dübendorf campus, in Zurich. Comprising three levels of concrete slab, a platform has been created to allow researchers and private industry to collaborate in testing emerging sustainable building technologies, in real-world conditions.
Empa deputy director Dr Peter Richner explains that NEST offers a way for the building industry, which is naturally conservative in light of the fact that it is constructing long-life assets, to test whether solutions developed at the laboratory level can be introduce commercially. Currently, the platform is home to a solar-powered fitness centre that includes sauna rooms and where even the energy from the exercise equipment is being harnessed. It also includes an apartment constructed entirely from recycled materials and a water hub, where Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, is testing the ‘toilet of the future’.
Toilets at the NEST separate urine and faecal matter at source. The urine is treated to produce a liquid fertiliser, which goes by the Zulu brand name of ‘Vuna’ (harvest), derived from Eawag’s urine-to-fertiliser pilot plant in eThekwini, South Africa. Scientists are also converting the ‘black water’ containing faecal matter into fuel pellets, which can be burnt as fuel in waste-to-energy plants to produce electricity and heat.
Energy Water Berne, the city’s utility, is already operating a uniquely configured power station that operates on waste, wood and gas and is able to respond flexibly to the changes in supply and demand associated with variable renewable energy generators. More broadly, though, Swiss cities have emerged as central figures in the unfolding energy transition. This is because many cities operate their own power supply, while energy security and efficiency is at the heart of their evolving view of what a ‘smart city’ of the future will be. Swiss Union of Cities and Towns deputy director Martin Tschirren reports that most city councillors anticipate that, along with decentralisation and increased renewables generation, dependence on electricity will grow, as electricity is increasingly used for mobility.
However, most Swiss cities have also grasped that the solutions do not lie on the supply side alone. They are, thus, highly supportive of moves to reduce demand, as well as to introduce greater efficiency to buildings, mobility, industry and home appliances. It’s a philosophy and trend that South Africa, which remains a relatively energy-inefficient country, would do well to heed and follow.
Creamer participated in an energy mission to Switzerland as a guest of the Swiss government