Isn’t importing electricity the simplest and most cost-effective solution?
No, it’s not a good idea. Importing electricity from neighbouring countries appears to be a simple and advantageous solution, at least in the short term. But basing our long-term energy strategy on imports would nevertheless be very risky, not only for our security of supply, but also economically.
Electricity prices are currently very low on the European market, not least because of significant overcapacity, with the result that supply exceeds demand. Germany alone has an installed generation capacity of about 200 GW and an annual electricity consumption of about 550 TWh.
Instead of replacing our nuclear power plants with gas-fired power plants, or with renewable energy facilities whose production costs are significantly higher than current market prices, Switzerland could simply take advantage of the existing overcapacity in Europe to import very cheap electricity. All the more so as electricity prices are likely to remain low for several years to come; long-term supply contracts are currently being negotiated at around 4 centimes per kWh for 2020, compared with 5 to 7 centimes in 2014. But this reasoning does not hold, for economic and strategic reasons.
First of all, the limited capacities of our transmission network at the borders with France and Germany can lead to saturation situations in the event of high demand. This has consequences not only in terms of security of supply, but also for prices because of the resulting congestion charges, which lead to significant increases in import prices at times of high demand.
Secondly, account must also be taken of developments in the overall situation. Tensions on natural resources are tending to intensify, particularly with the emergence of new economic powers such as China and India. Global energy demand is increasing massively. In this context, our security of energy supply is becoming increasingly important [→ Q21]. Importing electricity, especially from non-renewable resources (coal, natural gas, nuclear fuel) would undermine our security of supply because it would then depend on the security of supply of the countries that supplied us with this electricity.
Would investing in power plants abroad be a relevant option? This is precisely the strategy that has been adopted for several years by most of the major Swiss electricity companies. They have acquired stakes in gas and coal-fired power plants, hydroelectric facilities and solar and wind farms abroad. Some of these investments have proven to be uneconomic and have sometimes led to controversy (particularly in the case of coal-fired power plants). At the end of 2011, Axpo, Alpiq and BKW had a combined capacity of around 7 GW of power stations abroad, not far off the 10 GW of capacity of their power stations in Switzerland.
In the event of a Europe-wide electricity shortfall, it is not certain that the output of these power stations abroad will actually be made available to Switzerland, even with supply contracts. The grid operator in a country will always favour domestic supply before exporting. It can always invoke the contractual force majeure clause and the physical obligation to maintain its own balanced grid [→ Q72]. Such a border closure is not a theoretical case. It took place in 2003 in France. The heat wave of August 2003 severely limited the generating capacity of French power plants. Fearing for its own supply, France temporarily massively reduced its exports to Spain.
- Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2018)
- Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2018). Statistique suisse de l’électricité 2018. OFEN.
- Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2019)
- Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2019). Statistique globale de l’énergie 2018. OFEN.
- Pauli, Ernst (2016)
- Pauli, Ernst (2016). L’approvisionnement en électricité en Suisse - Un coup d’œil sur les activités commerciales des grandes entreprises énergétiques suisses. Horizons et débats.