What future for natural gas and fuel oil?
Fuel oil consumption will continue to decline in Switzerland in the coming years and could become marginal in 2050. The development of gas consumption in Switzerland is more uncertain and will depend on the role we choose to give to this fuel, not only for heating, but also for electricity production and transport. To a large extent, this choice could be influenced by the position Europe and Switzerland will take in the exploitation of unconventional gas reserves (shale gas).
Burning fuel oil and, to a lesser extent, natural gas, emits CO2, which contributes to global warming. Today, Switzerland uses these fuels primarily for heating purposes. Yet there are several renewable and economically viable alternatives to these fossil fuels for producing domestic heat: in particular, solar thermal collectors, wood pellets, heat pumps or heat and power cogeneration units fuelled by biomass residues or waste. In this context, continuing to burn gas and oil just to produce domestic heat is no longer justified from an energy and climate point of view.
The consumption of fuel oil has been falling steadily since the 1970s for three reasons: the reduction of heating needs through improved insulation of buildings, technological improvements (introduction of condensing boilers), and the substitution (partial or total) of other energy sources (gas, pellets, solar thermal, etc.). This trend is likely to continue. By 2050, oil could account for less than 14 TWh in our energy mix, compared to about 32 TWh today, depending on the scenarios of the Federal Council’s Energy Strategy 2050 [→ Q86].
The use of natural gas and fuel oil can nevertheless be justified, in terms of energy efficiency, in two cases: heat pumps (powered by gas or oil), and cogeneration plants that provide both electricity and heat [→ Q28]. Micro-cogeneration facilities for individual heating of buildings are a very promising technology, but still face financial difficulties [→ Q27].
The use of natural gas to generate only electricity in large gas plants is one of the main themes of the energy transition debate. There is no certainty today as to how many such plants could be built in Switzerland [→ Q89].
Finally, the natural gas used as fuel is interesting for “decarbonising” transport; natural gas vehicles generate about 22% less CO2 than petrol or diesel vehicles of comparable size, while costing the user significantly less [→ Q33].
These technological considerations must be seen in the context of security of supply. While conventional natural gas reserves are rapidly depleting in Europe, large reserves of unconventional natural gas (shale gas and compact gas) appear to exist, particularly in France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Poland and… Switzerland [→ Q23].
Unlike in the United States, unconventional gas is not currently exploited in Europe. The technique of fracturing rocks (“fracking”), which enables its extraction, remains highly controversial. This technique has the limited but real risk of polluting groundwater if the boreholes are not properly sealed and of generating seismic tremors, as in St. Gallen [→ Q62]. The debate on this issue is raging, and Europe’s current caution could quickly evolve towards the exploitation of this resource if its security of supply of natural gas were to deteriorate. Unconventional gas could change the geopolitical landscape for Europe and Switzerland, following the example of the United States, where the massive exploitation of shale gas has significantly increased their level of energy independence. It is highly likely that the Swiss will have to vote in a referendum on the question of the possible exploitation of this unconventional gas.
- Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2013)
- Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2013). Perspectives énergétiques 2050.