Why export the electricity we produce and import the electricity we consume?

Switzerland exports much of its electricity production for essentially commercial reasons. In doing so, it benefits from the operational flexibility of its hydroelectric storage power plants (dams). These plants can be commissioned very quickly, which makes them essential for coping with fluctuations in Swiss consumption during the day, but also makes it possible to produce and export electricity at times of peak demand and thus at times of high prices.

By way of illustration, consider the year 2018. In that year, Switzerland produced 63.6 TWh of electricity and consumed 62.0 TWh. On the basis of this annual result alone, it would appear that Switzerland is self-sufficient in electricity and exports 1.6 TWh to make up the difference between domestic production and consumption. The reality is quite different [→ see figure below]. In fact, Switzerland imported 31 TWh in 2018 and between 29 TWh and 36 TWh per year over the last ten years, making it the 5th largest importer of electricity in the world. This is surprising for a country of this size… There are three explanations for this.

First, the annual overall balance does not allow relevant conclusions to be drawn about the level of electrical independence. In fact, over the last ten years, Switzerland has had a production surplus of 1.8 to 7.3 TWh in the summer months and a deficit of 0.6 to 9.8 TWh in the winter months [→ Q11]. The summer production surplus is exported (as it cannot be stored) [→ Q75], and the winter deficit must be compensated by imports.

Second, thanks to its pumped storage facilities [→ Q15], Switzerland has for decades been importing cheap surplus electricity produced at night from Europe. It uses this night-time electricity to pump water from the lowlands to the high-altitude storage lakes, then turbines it and re-exports it the next day when demand and prices are high. Expected pumped storage power generation has been in the order of 1.5 TWh per year. In the process, the Swiss electricity companies earned a profit of CHF 1.3 billion in 2010. This business model is now being called into question by the development of intermittent renewable energies (solar and wind power) and by the very low price of CO2 emissions, which enables coal-fired power plants to produce electricity very cheaply [→ Q70].

Third, due to its geographical location in the heart of Europe, Switzerland serves as a transit route for trans-European electricity traffic, particularly to Italy. Some 10% of European electricity passes through Switzerland.

It is therefore clear that it is essentially an economic rationale that lies behind the import and export flows of electricity into and out of Switzerland.


International Energy Agency (IEA) (2018)
(). Key world energy statistics 2018. OECD Publishing.
Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2018)
(). Statistique suisse de l’électricité 2018. OFEN.
Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2019)
(). Statistique globale de l’énergie 2018. OFEN.
Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2019)
(). Statistique des aménagements hydroélectriques. [Online]. Available at: www.admin.ch/gov/fr/accueil/documentation/communiques.msg-id-71338.html.