Why is the micro-hydraulics support program being questioned?

The Swiss Confederation considered that the economic cost and ecological risk associated with the multiplication of very small hydropower plants (micro-hydropower) was too high, given the residual potential for electricity production that this technology could provide.

In the revision of the feed-in tariff remuneration (RPC) programme, which came into force in January 2014 [→ Q79], the federal government has decided to significantly reduce subsidies for micro-hydropower plants on watercourses. Micro hydropower is defined as hydroelectric power plants with a capacity of less than 300 kW.

Today, Switzerland has fewer than a thousand micro-hydro power plants in operation on rivers, which produce around 0.5 TWh of electricity, or less than 1% of our consumption. Micro-hydropower is therefore a technology that has long since proved its worth. As a result, the reduction in subsidies does not come from a reduction in costs resulting from technical and commercial maturity, as is the case, for example, with photovoltaic solar energy (subsidies fall as cost prices fall). In this case, the reduction in these subsidies is the result of a political will on the part of the Confederation to limit the development of micro-hydroelectric power plants on rivers.

Micro hydropower in rivers is currently facing two difficulties. On the one hand, its production costs are generally higher than those of small-scale hydropower [→ Q64]. The federal government therefore prefers to allocate the RPC aid first to the least expensive technologies such as small-scale hydropower with a capacity of more than 1 MW, in order to maximise the number of kWh of electricity produced per franc invested.

On the other hand, according to their detractors, micro-hydropower structures could have significant ecological impacts on aquatic fauna and on the biotopes associated with watercourses. Like wind power, hydropower is a controversial renewable energy because of its potential impact on the environment. However, proponents of the technology and environmental groups often disagree on the nature and extent of these impacts.

All in all, the federal government finally decided that the potential ecological risk was too high in view of the contribution that micro-hydropower on rivers could make to our electricity mix. This vision is not shared by the proponents of this technology. On the other hand, subsidies for micro-hydropower have been increased for so-called “accessory” or “multi-purpose” plants, i.e. those integrated into existing infrastructures such as drinking water or wastewater networks, because they have virtually no additional negative environmental impact [→ Q57].


Association des Usiners Romands (ISKB/ADUR) (2014)
(). 10 bonnes raisons d’opter pour les petites centrales hydrauliques - Quelques faits concernant les centrales hydrauliques de 300 kW.