Could the global energy crisis shut down Swiss ski resorts?

Solar ski lift in Tenna, Switzerland, with 82 solar wings that move every 10 minutes to optimize solar reception. It produces 100,000 kWh per year, much more than it consumes. Source: energy-expertfr.ch

There are fears that the global energy crisis will claim another victim: ski resorts. The Swiss government has released a four-step contingency plan for what is expected to be a harsh winter with potential energy shortages. In Stage 1, people are encouraged to voluntarily reduce their energy consumption. In stage 2, certain “peripheral” stations will be closed, including the operation of the ski lifts.

Resort managers in Switzerland are outraged. “The electricity consumption of all Swiss ski lifts is 0.3% of all electricity consumption in Switzerlandsaid Berno Stoffel, director of the Swiss Elevator Association, “it won’t make a big difference”. He stressed that ski lift operators were happy to do their part in reducing usage, for example by reducing hours of operation, reducing snowmaking, eliminating night skiing, cutting supplying hot water to mountain toilets and finally slowing down the speed of ski lifts, which can apparently save 20% on its own.

However, he thinks stopping all lifting operations would be a huge mistake. There are 2,400 ski lift operators throughout Switzerland who are the backbone of the Swiss ski industry which contributes 5 billion Swiss francs ($5.1 billion) to GDP annually. Some regions are more dependent on winter sports tourism than others. Regions such as Graubünden – home to St. Moritz and Davos – and Valais – home to Saas Fee and Zermatt are quite heavily dependent on income from the ski industry. The hospitality industry has been struggling for two covid winters. The economic cost does not seem to be in line with the benefit.

Swiss ski tourism
Ski days by region, Switzerland, source: Swiss Info

In addition, Swiss resorts have been striving to be carbon neutral or fully dependent solely on renewable energy for many years. Andermatt is completely carbon neutral. Zermatt has solar stations and four photovoltaic stations, the Matterhorn Glacier Ride I gondola alone can produce 270,000 kWh. The list is lengthened increasingly.

Swiss ski resorts consume 183 GWh per year, the same amount as a medium-sized Swiss city like Thun or Baden. 55% of electricity goes to ski lifts, 32% to snowmaking and 13% to services such as restaurants, etc.

183 GWh of total use in a country that produces approximately 65,000 GWh doesn’t seem to make a material difference. The problem for Switzerland is rather its dependence on oil and gas imports because it does not have its own resources.

Swiss electricity
Electricity production in Switzerland by source, dark green: thermal energy, light green: nuclear energy, yellow: renewable energies, orange and red: hydraulic energy, image: Bundesamt for Statistics

It seems short-sighted to force ski resorts to close. Electricity savings would be minimal, especially considering the economic impact. Switzerland has no electricity supply problems thanks to its extensive network of renewable (mainly hydro) power plants combined with nuclear power plants.

The energy crisis is not due to a shortage of electricity but to a shortage of gas and oil. Currently, a quarter of Switzerland’s energy needs are met by electricity. Marius Schwarz, an energy scientist at ETH Zurich, thinks the future lies in raising that share to a third. He is adamant that trying to cut the power in the Swiss Alps is the wrong angle. Instead, he suggests encouraging more power generation in the Alps, as their location lends itself to more efficient renewable energy generation than in low-lying areas.

But it’s no surprise that the targeted industry is seen by many as elitist. This seems a rather populist choice despite numbers that clearly do not speak in favor of such a drastic decision.

Train Switzerland
The famous Glacier Express en route to St. Moritz, photo: Julia Schneemann

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