Technology

Sheep, solar, sustainability

 By Andrew Burger

It’s not part of the E.U. and hence doesn’t have to comply with the regional bloc’s renewable energy mandate, but Switzerland is moving steadfastly forward with its own plans to phase out nuclear and rely on a diversified mix of renewable energy resources. Andrew Burger describes the small town of Payerne, home to the solar-powered plane and aircraft program Solar Impulse, as a real paradigm of a nation moving forward with ambitious renewable energy plans…

It’s not part of the E.U. and hence doesn’t have to comply with the regional bloc’s renewable energy mandate, but like neighboring Germany, Switzerland is moving steadfastly forward with its own plans to phase out nuclear and instead rely on a diversified mix of local, distributed renewable energy resources coupled to an ¨intelligent¨ power grid.

Home to Solar Impulse – a solar energy and clean tech innovation program, the highest profile instance of which is the world’s first and only long-range solar-powered aircraft – the small town of Payerne (population around 10,000) intends to lead Switzerland’s way forward. For one, project developers just recently brought SolarPayerne — Switzerland’s largest solar photovoltaic (PV) power installation — online.

Developed by utility Groupe e with the support of the town and the government of Canton Vaude, SolarPayerne went live at the end of the September. Designed to produce 6 gigawatt-hours (GWh) per year of clean, renewable electricity, the solar PV park is expected to meet half the town’s power needs. Groupe e, city officials and citizens have yet more ambitious plans in mind.

From the Grass Up: Building Switzerland’s Largest Solar Energy Park

Offering an example of Switzerland’s open, inclusive approach to government, four years ago Payerne resident Cedric Moullet proposed building Switzerland’s largest solar energy park to the town council. Moullet had no previous experience with solar PV energy technology or systems.

That said, Moullet is a former survey engineer who has lived nearly all his life in or near Payerne. He also served in the town council some six years ago. Based solely on the idea and some rough calculations as to the required generation capacity and land area required, the council members readily agreed to participate and help realize Moullet’s vision.

SolarPayerne has some novel features besides its scale. In addition to producing emissions-free electricity, the solar energy park is used for agriculture and at the same time helps protect two rare, domestic breeds of sheep, Moullet explained. Groupe e granted a local sheepherder free access to graze a herd of 100 Ouessant and Skudde sheep on-site. In return, the sheep help maintain the site’s grounds.

A broad view of Solar Impulse, the experimental solar aircraft

Payerne and Switzerland’s Distributed Renewable Energy and Clean Tech Plans

Along with Solar Impulse, SolarPayerne is a renewable energy milestone for the town and for Switzerland. It’s just the first step in project developers and town leaders’ plans to meet all of Payerne’s electricity needs by taking advantage of clean, renewable energy sources and associated energy storage and smart grid technology.

At the provincial level, the canton of Vaude requires all new buildings to have solar PV systems, Moullet pointed out. About 50 km (31 mi) from Payerne, Vaude’s main city is Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has its headquarters.

In addition to government, Swiss electric utilities, knowing they will not be able to invest in new nuclear power plants, are also investing in renewable energy projects. With the town parliament on board, Groupe e followed suit and quickly assumed the lead role in SolarPayerne’s development.

Beginning design and planning in 2012, Groupe e had the required government approvals and permits in hand early this year. In terms of time, construction turned out to be the shortest phase of the project.

SolarPayerne: Switzerland’s Largest Solar Energy Park

It took just four months for Groupe e and private contractors to install some 25,000 polycrystalline PV panels on the site, which covers an area of around 60,000 sq m (538,000 sq ft) – about the size of six soccer fields, Moullet elaborated.

Groupe e invested the Swiss franc equivalent of about $8 million in the project. The electricity the solar PV park produces is being sold to customers at the same blended rates in place before the PV park’s development.

¨Our electricity provider can draw on a mix of energy sources and deliver electricity for about $0.20 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), exactly the same price as before,¨ Moullet said.

Looking Ahead Towards Payerne and Switzerland’s Sustainable Energy Future

Looking out five years, SolarPayerne’s developers and town leaders intend to expand local solar power generation capacity and make use of pumped storage and hydro power generation to meet all Payerne’s electricity needs. Besides the possibility of building a second solar park at another site, Moullet noted that some 10,000-sq m (108,000 sq ft) of rooftop space in Payerne could be suitable for PV systems.

Pumped hydro storage and power generation is an excellent complement to solar energy, Moullet noted, pointing out that it can make up for shortfalls in PV output during daylight hours and meet the town’s electricity demand after sunset.

Solar Impulse and SolarPayerne are important examples of Switzerland’s efforts to develop and promote deployment and use of renewable energy and clean technology worldwide, Sylvain Jaccard, Head of Western Switzerland at S-GE (Switzerland Global Enterprise), an organization that works all over the world to support entrepreneurs and promote Switzerland as a business location, pointed out.

¨Switzerland offers an optimal environment for developing cleantech infrastructure and technologies…The SolarPayne initiative illustrates the will of Switzerland to embrace renewable energies.

¨As one of the first Swiss cities with a clear ambition to become fully autonomous in terms of energy and the home to worldwide famous airplane Solar Impulse, Payerne is definitely a pioneer in cleantech. We are looking forward to seeing more villages and cities follow its example.¨

If every city in Switzerland were to follow the same or a similar path, Moullet said, ¨Switzerland is becoming less and less dependent on nuclear energy and plans to gradually close down its nuclear plants over the coming decades.¨

That would be a major achievement, one that would bring substantial economic, social and environmental benefits to residents and businesses, as well as serve as a model for sustainable energy development for cities and towns worldwide.

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.