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Swiss wind power held up by legal challenges

For a decade, wind energy in Switzerland has been stalled. Opponents have used every possible means to stop projects. At the end of September, one community will vote on the future of this kind of energy.

Power derived from wind is already contributing 20% to the German energy mix. But unlike its northern neighbour, Switzerland does not have extended, empty, flat surfaces of territory.

Made up of slopes and valleys, the Swiss landscape does not lend itself to the installation of turbines. Critics of wind power are keen to point this out. But the example of Austria would suggest the opposite. With a mountainous terrain not much different from Switzerland, Austria is already producing 60 times more wind energy.

In the past year, the 40-odd turbines operating in Switzerland produced about 146 million kilowatt hours (kWh), which covers the electricity consumption of just over 36,000 households. This is equivalent to 0.2% of the country’s total electricity consumption. The association for promoting wind power, Suisse Eole, which published these figures, wants 10% of electricity to come from wind power by 2050.

Is this ambition realistic? “The Swiss population generally favours wind power. Of the 22 referendums covering such projects, 19 have achieved a positive result”, says Lionel Perret, head of the wind farmers’ lobby group.

But the opposition is digging in. “Five building projects are still being disputed in the Federal Court”, adds Perret. “Ten others are awaiting decisions from cantons. Even if these sites get the go-ahead, there are no guarantees. We expect further opposition in the courts, particularly from fringe groups.”

The government has identified a number of sites with “wind power potential” without really analysing local and regional factors. It is usually up to cantons to give the green light, but wind farms with a production level of at least 20 gigawatt hours per year are considered to be of “national interest”. But wind power production is still advancing at a crawl.

Last June, Suisse Eole said wind power had stagnated in the last ten years. “Projects are hardly getting off the drawing board or out of the courts”, the lobby group lamented. One example is the proposed 12-turbine development at Mollendruz in western Switzerland. The project was first mooted in 2009. In view of several protest lodged by environmental groups, the fate of the site will eventually be decided by the highest court.

This slow pace makes it hard to fulfil the federal government’s objectives. So much so that Swiss companies in the business of developing wind power are forsaking their home country to sell their expertise abroad.

The slow pace has not, however, stopped turbines from becoming more efficient and effective than before. Technical development has raised productivity. “The yield is two to three times higher than ten years ago”, says Perret. There is also more know-how of wind conditions at high altitudes. It is vital to speed up approval of projects, some of which have been on the drawing board for 20 years, says Perret.

The Bern Jura region – where 16 turbines are in full operation – is being touted as a model. There are even guided tours for interested visitors.

The Jura area in the northwest of Switzerland is one of the zones favoured by the federal government for this kind of green energy. The Federal Court has also ruled this geography to be suitable. Other sites have been built in the Rhône Valley, and the central cantons of Lucerne and Uri.

Work to erect five turbines around the Gotthard pass, which links north and south Switzerland, is in progress. Three turbines are already in place. This new wind farm should start producing green energy in November, meeting the needs of 5,000 households.

Crucial September vote

Situated on the border of cantons Bern and Neuchâtel, the Quatre-Bornes project is subject to a public vote on September 27. The 1,200 inhabitants of one municipality will decide whether to accept ten turbines. Started 15 years ago, the project has failed to garner support from all locals.

Prior to the vote, various challenges were made to this project. They came from the Swiss Foundation to Protect the Countryside, the Swiss Heritage Society (Neuchâtel section), and the town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, which is about ten kilometres away from the site.

The turbines are expected to be visible from the town – and by 300 individuals, including former ski champion, Didier Cuche. A native of the region, he fears the 200-metre high turbines will do harm to the a nature park.