Switzerland may ban electric vehicles from being used except for “essential” purposes this winter as government officials plan for a possible energy crisis during the winter months. Swiss officials drafted emergency proposals that restrict power usage if electricity shortages occur this winter. They include fewer hours for shop owners, limited use of streaming services, lower temperature settings on buildings of 20 degrees Celsius or 68 degrees Fahrenheit, bans on concerts, theater performances and sporting events, as well as only essential use of electric vehicles. The irony of the electric vehicle restriction is that present government policy has electric vehicles ramping up to 50 percent of new car sales by 2025. It’s tough to convince car buyers to go electric if the government restricts their use because of an electricity shortage. Switzerland fears possible blackouts because the country relies on hydropower for 60 percent of its electricity production, but in the winter months that production slows and the country must rely on imports to fill the gap. Electricity is expected to be in short supply in Europe this winter, so import reliance may become difficult.
Switzerland’s emergency plan is split into two tiers: crisis and emergency. It also has three levels of restriction in the first tier and two levels of restriction in the third tier. Swiss officials will activate each tier and level based on supply level. Essential items such as medical care or the supply of water or energy will not be restricted.
At the lowest level, buildings will only be able to be heated to 20 degrees Celsius and residents will be asked to limit their washing machines to a maximum of 40 degrees Celsius. Under the next level, temperatures will be lowered to 19 degrees Celsius and streaming services asked to lower the resolution of videos from HD quality to standard. If the situation worsens, shops will be asked to close two hours early and electric vehicles limited to essential journeys. Under crisis measures, hot water may be disabled in public bathrooms and the use of electric leaf blowers barred. Next, escalators will be stopped and outdoor Christmas lighting turned off. If shortages persist, cryptocurrency mining would be banned, along with closure of swimming pools and the banning of lights in sports stadiums. If the most extreme shortages hit, sports matches, concerts and theatre performances would be canceled, and all leisure businesses forced to close.
These measures are being made necessary by decades of actions in Europe against the use of fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, mostly intermittent wind and solar power, ostensibly in pursuit of meeting climate commitments. Wind has been performing poorly in Europe recently with very low wind speeds resulting in low levels of generation.
Switzerland’s Sources of Generation
Besides hydropower, Switzerland generates electricity from nuclear power, which it wants to phase out despite its contributing a third of electricity supply, and fossil fuel plants and solar or wind generation provide the rest. In the wetter months, rainfall and snow increases hydroelectric power and the country exports much of it. But in the colder months when hydroelectric generation slows, Switzerland imports from neighboring countries. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, combined with the transition to renewable energy in Europe, has made the level of those imports uncertain.
In the past, Switzerland has imported electricity from France and Germany. The French government recently started instructing officials around the country to plan for potential rolling electricity outages as soon as next month. Any scheduled power cuts in France would be telegraphed days in advance and would hit small sections of the country at different times. The cuts, which would last for two hours in the mornings or in early evening, when power use is at a high, would not apply to sensitive sites, including hospitals, nursing homes, fire and police stations and prisons.
France gets most of its power from its 56 nuclear power plants, but many of its plants are down for maintenance. The country is struggling to repair a series of problems that have left nearly half of its nuclear fleet offline, limiting exports. Électricité de France, or EDF, which runs France’s nuclear power plants, announced the restart recently of a large reactor in northern France, although further delays are expected at other nuclear sites.
In Germany, sales of candles have soared as that country was most dependent on Russian natural gas. Germany is now burning coal and lignite to get through the winter. Elsewhere, Britain’s National Grid operator has warned households of possible blackouts from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. if natural gas used to produce electricity runs short. Electric car owners in Finland are being advised not to heat their plugged-in vehicles on freezing mornings to avoid straining the grid. The mean temperature in Finland during the winter is below freezing. A recent report by the European Network of Transmission System Operators showed that electricity supplies in France, Sweden and Finland, among others, were at risk of outages.
Unseasonably warm weather during October and November in Europe allowed households and businesses to keep their furnaces turned off, helping natural gas stocks last longer than expected and bringing down natural gas prices. But Europe is now facing its first major cold snap, with an Arctic air blast from Greenland expected to send temperatures plunging in coming days. Governments have already been dipping into some of the emergency gas reserves, driving European natural gas prices back up to their highest levels in six weeks.
Switzerland’s Climate Goal
Switzerland’s climate goal is to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. The Swiss, however, do not intend to reduce emissions by that much within their own borders. Instead, it is paying poorer nations, like Ghana or Dominica, to reduce emissions and give Switzerland credit for the reductions. For instance, Switzerland could pay to install more efficient lighting and cleaner stoves in up to five million households in Ghana, which would help households to move away from burning wood for cooking. Switzerland would then get to count those emissions reductions as progress toward its own climate goals.
Whether this mechanism is fair is at issue. At the United Nations climate conference in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, the issue of reparations from wealthy countries to poor countries arose, which raises the issue of the extent to which rich nations should be compensating poorer countries. If nations do as Switzerland intends, it could delay climate action in wealthier parts of the world while shifting the work of reducing emissions toward the global poor, who already suffer from a shortage of energy. In addition, it could take advantage of projects in poorer countries that would have proceeded anyway, with or without foreign funding.
Switzerland has been explicit that it cannot reach its emissions reduction targets on its own, and that it needs to look for at least a third of its cuts elsewhere. It already generates the bulk of its electricity from non-carbon energy — namely, hydroelectric and nuclear power — making further emissions cuts difficult.
Switzerland has a several-tier system for reducing electricity usage should power shortages occur. Part of the plan is to require only essential uses of electric vehicles, despite wanting them to supply 50 percent of new car sales by 2025. Switzerland obtains most of its electricity from non-carbon sources and feels it needs to get further reductions from the global poor to meet its carbon goal of 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. That raises issues as expressed above. Clearly, going to net zero carbon is not easy and very expensive. Is President Biden, who is following in Europe’s footsteps, understanding the issue correctly? Has he explained the magnitude of the issue to the American people? Americans may be able to peer into their own futures if government energy policies are not changed by watching Europe closely this winter. Its prospects for reliable energy are not good and could be even worse in future years.