Friday, 2 April 2010

Switzerland and wind turbines

Anyone who's driven along Switzerland's main East-West motorway near Martigny will have seen the rare experimental wind turbine in this photo. It's a Darrieus vertical axis turbine, and has been there since 1987. It was hugely experimental at the time, and I believe there's even some complicated connection with the adjacent sewage works and biogas plant (which is also quite innovative), though - possibly as its main use was well before the web kicked off - there's precious little about it online.

It's in one of Switzerland's windiest valleys - but the most famous feature of this turbine is that it's hardly ever rotating. I think I've only ever seen it in action twice. It was also taken down at various points in its lifetime - sometimes for several years; indeed on Google Maps' aerial photo (here) you can see it lying down - but now it's back up.

This old and now largely abandoned turbine is all that remains of an alternative future for Swiss energy - a future that never happened. For all of the early inventiveness (and its location right next to the motorway means it's quite widely recognised, even if a lot of people don't know that it's a wind turbine) you can't avoid the feeling that Switzerland decided early on to 'pass' on wind energy.

In the last few years a pair of more conventional wind turbines have appeared a few kilometres down the valley - though for all its green-ness, the biggest wind farm in the country still has just eight turbines.

A glance at the landscape gives some idea why - deep valleys, and huge mountains, don't really provide the ideal conditions. Unpredictable and variable wind doesn't help. And the scenery in the windy areas is mainly quite heavily protected (it's no accident that the current wind farms tend to be in industrial lowland areas).

All said, renewable energy may not be needed in Switzerland - fully 94% of its electricity is already 'low-carbon' (56% hydroelectric, the legacy of a dam-building programme in the 1950s onwards of unimaginable proportions, and most of the rest nuclear). But in a surprise move, immensely costly solar panels are currently appearing everywhere, with some cantons (regions) apparently offering generous subsidies. Hard to say where the rest of Switzerland's future electricity capacity will come from - so far, energy use is on the up, and nothing has emerged as a strong option. They've bene busy increasing the capacity of the dams (which literally, in this case, means building the existing dams a bit higher!) - and the ability of the dams to accommodate fluctuations in generation means they could have up to any amount of renewable energy. There's also a strong wariness of imported energy supplies. Could wind ever make a comeback?