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When the glacier melts: how our use of water as a resource is changing

Switzerland is Europe's surge tank. But as the climate changes, there are increasing demands on the use of water as a resource. We want to take a look at water use as a result of climate change, how this alters our behaviour and what demands will be placed on us as a society in the future. 

Photo © Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn

The Gorner Glacier is melting. The Gorner glacier is located above the Valais town of Zermatt and has long formed one of the largest contiguous glacier areas in the Alps. But the former ice giant is melting. 170 years ago, the glacier was 16 kilometres long; today, it measures just under 12 kilometres and continues to lose mass. Over the next few years, the ice should gradually give way to a natural lake forming in front of the glacier tongue. The Gornerli multi-purpose reservoir project aims to secure the valuable meltwater and use it for multiple purposes in a reservoir. This project is a clear example of how our use of water as a resource is changing and how projects must focus on the effects of climate change from the outset.

Water must be able to do more – demands are increasing

Switzerland is becoming warmer. According to MeteoSwiss, the annual mean temperature has increased linearly by around 2°C in the last 150 years. This means the temperature in Switzerland is rising faster than in other regions around the world. This is causing weather conditions in Switzerland to change. The glaciers are melting, the snow line is rising and weather extremes such as heavy rainfall and dry summers are increasingly common. This is also having an effect on the use of water as a resource. It is used for power production, ensuring drinking water or as a reservoir for agricultural irrigation. However, there are risks involved in this. The melting glaciers and extreme weather conditions are increasing the risk of flooding. All of this requires new solutions and approaches to manage water as well as possible – also, or especially, for hydropower operators. “New hydropower projects are designed to be multi-functional from the outset. We are working with the municipalities near the site and other partners to find solutions for the various climate challenges faced by society. We think of projects as multifunctional from the very start,” says Amédée Murisier, head of the Switzerland business unit at Alpiq. “We are thinking ahead to the future to provide an added value to society through the projects.” As such, the Gornerli multi-purpose reservoir project implemented by Grande Dixence AG, in which Alpiq is the majority shareholder, is designed to have multiple uses. The Gornerli is not only an energy reservoir for winter or a drinking water and service water reservoir, but also serves as flood protection for the town of Zermatt and the entire Matter valley.

New solutions for the Swiss surge tank

Switzerland is Europe's surge tank. Several of Europe’s major rivers, including the Rhone and the Rhine, have their source in our Alps. Hydropower is our most important energy source in Switzerland. According to the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, almost 58% of domestic power is produced from hydropower. This makes it renewable, CO2 neutral and environmentally friendly. Unlike solar and wind energy, water can be stored in reservoirs and can therefore be shifted from summer to winter as an energy reserve. “The seasonal reservoirs are key for Switzerland’s security of supply,” says Amédée Murisier. But time is against us because the population's power needs continue to rise, especially in winter months. While there is usually a power surplus in summer, power tends to be imported in winter. “As a society, we need to find a new way of living if we want to base Switzerland's energy future on renewable energy. In order to achieve this, we need to have target-oriented discussions about new infrastructure projects and carefully balance protection of nature and use of natural resources. We also need to look at how we want to use water as a resource,” says Amédée Murisier. “The longer we wait, the more the solutions will ultimately cost as we will need short-term alternatives in the meantime. In terms of securing Switzerland’s power supply, we need to focus on power production in winter and storage capacity.”

The Gornerli and the hydropower round table

Switzerland needs to double its renewable production capacity by 2050. This is due to higher consumption, electrification and the age of existing nuclear power plants. Hydropower plants will also play a key part in the future. In particular, it is worth mentioning the 16 projects agreed by the hydropower round table convened by the Swiss federal government at the end of 2021. This round table involved energy companies such as Alpiq and environmental and nature conservation organisations. Alpiq is convinced that all these projects for Switzerland’s security of supply are of key importance. Alpiq participates in five projects from the hydropower round table: the Gornerli multi-purpose reservoir, the Oberaletsch project and the Emosson, Moiry and Sambucco dam raisings.

The Gornerli project is the largest from the round table as it would supply 650 GWh of additional winter energy and 200 GWh of additional production. This means it would be able to supply a third of the additional hydropower needed in Switzerland during winter by itself. This project is evidence that a lot of energy can be provided for the winter months. The project is implemented by Grande Dixence AG, in which Alpiq is the majority shareholder. The municipality of Zermatt, the municipalities of the Matter valley, all other concession municipalities of the Grande Dixence and other partners are all closely involved in the project and are in favour of it.

You can find out more about the Gornerli multi-purpose reservoir project here.

Referendum on secure power supply on 9 June

On 9 June, the Swiss population will vote on the Electricity Act. Alpiq is convinced that it will help expand renewable energies, pave the way for more power in winter, and therefore improve the security of supply. The Electricity Act provides the instruments required to pursue the transformation of the energy system. It is a broadly supported trade-off that optimally balances the benefits for energy production and protection of biodiversity. We need the common goal of an energy supply that protects the climate and guarantees high security of supply. The Electricity Act is the only way that we can make quick progress over the next ten years.

Find out more about secure power supply (only available in German, French and Italian)