Government relaxes water use rules to boost hydropower capacity

The 285-metre-high dam wall of the Lac des Dix, near Heremence in the canton Valais, Switzerland. Keystone / Alessandro Della Bella

The Swiss government plans to temporarily ease water use rules to allow a number of hydropower plants to boost capacity ahead of possible power shortages this winter.

This content was published on September 30, 2022 minutes

A certain number of hydroelectric power plants will benefit from access to increased quantities of water to produce electricity. Dam operators will be permitted to temporarily reduce the amount of residual water that they have to release from reservoirs into lower-lying streams and rivers under Swiss law.

This new measure will take effect on Saturday and last for seven months. It should boost electricity production by up to 150 gigawatt hours (GWh), the Federal Council said in a statementExternal link on Friday. This corresponds to the annual output of an Aare River power plant.

The regulation concerns around 45 of the 1,500 hydroelectric power facilities in Switzerland. It applies to hydroelectric power plants that received a new usage concession after 1992 and for ecological reasons discharge higher amounts of residual water than the legally required minimum.

The government said the impact on the environment was acceptable and proportionate to the economic benefit.

“Temporary restrictions on fish migration are to be expected, which may make it more difficult for fish numbers to reproduce in 2023. However, only the long-term application of this provision would have irreversible consequences for the biodiversity, water supply or water quality,” it stated. Various environmental groups had expressed their oppositionExternal link to the move.

The Swiss authorities are scrambling to prepare for possible energy shortages in the coming months. In August, the government launched a campaignExternal link encouraging the population not to waste energy amid the expected energy crunch linked to reduced supplies of oil and gas from Russia in the wake of its war in Ukraine.

Last month, the government also introduced a voluntary gas savings schemeExternal link in a bid to reduce demand from households and industry by 15%. Measures are in place to boost water reserves at hydropower plants and to increase gas storage facilities.

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