Is the generation of electricity in Switzerland from natural gas inevitable?
No, not necessarily! Switzerland could do without gas-fired power plants if it so decided. But then it would have to find the means to do so; it would have to greatly accelerate the spread of renewable energies, and it would have to accelerate the spread of technologies. Otherwise, it would become necessary to use gas-fired power stations for our electricity supply, at least on a transitional basis. The economic and strategic impact for Switzerland of a decision not to use gas-fired power plants would depend primarily on the future of shale gas in Europe and Switzerland and on the development of the price of CO2 emissions.
As the name suggests, gas-fired power plants generate electricity from the heat produced by burning natural gas (mainly methane). They are one of the options for replacing part of the output of nuclear power plants after they have been shut down. The advantage of these plants is that they can be implemented in a relatively short period of time, in the order of 2 to 3 years. However, they have two major disadvantages: they increase our dependence on imports (natural gas now comes from abroad), and they emit around 50 times more CO2 per kWh produced than nuclear power.
If Switzerland succeeds in fully exploiting its potential for renewable electricity and energy efficiency, then it will have little or no need to import electricity. However, the longer it takes for this potential to be realised, the more it will have to rely on imports, which will undermine our security of supply. If we were forced to import on a massive scale, then it would be better to import gas, which we ourselves would convert into electricity in gas-fired power plants, rather than electricity [→ Q88]. We are clearly moving in that direction, as our efforts in the field of renewable energy and energy efficiency have so far been timid. Unless we increase our efforts in this area tenfold, gas appears to be a must, at least during a transitional phase - unless we decide to keep our nuclear power plants in operation for up to 60 years to avoid this transition [→ Q16].
While the option of gas-fired power stations is preferable to that of importing electricity from the point of view of our security of supply, this is not the case from an economic point of view, at least not in the short term. In the current environment of low prices and excess electricity production capacity in Europe, it is not economically viable to build gas-fired power plants in Switzerland. As a result, no one intends to invest in such facilities today (and probably in the years to come). As a result, in order to guarantee its security of electricity supply, Switzerland could find itself in the absurd situation… where it would have to subsidise gas-fired power plants in order for them to come into being! Such a scenario seems plausible, as it is already being observed today for small combined heat and power plants in Switzerland [→ Q28].
Nevertheless, the kWh produced by a gas-fired power plant (large or small) today costs even less than the kWh of renewable electricity. Therefore, favouring gas would cost Switzerland less in the short term than massively subsidising renewable energies. In the medium term, this reasoning becomes uncertain, as the price of electricity produced from gas is expected to rise in line with the increase in the price of CO2 emissions [→ Q83] and [→ Q90], while the cost of renewable electricity will continue to fall [→ Q64]. However, the possible large-scale exploitation of unconventional gases in Europe could change this situation, to the detriment of renewable energies [→ Q25].
Furthermore, building gas-fired power plants today while waiting to deploy indigenous solutions (renewables and energy efficiency) is probably not a good bet, since these facilities will be used less and less as renewables and energy efficiency increase. All of these factors reduce the profitability of natural gas-fired power plants.
So we see how important it is to understand these different issues so that we can quickly choose the path we want to take and make a firm commitment to it. The longer we delay our decision, the less leeway we have to choose the most advantageous options for Switzerland.
- Swiss ENERGYScope (2019)
- Swiss ENERGYScope (2019). Swiss-energyscope. [Online]. Available at: https://www.energyscope.ch/.