It is 200 years since Switzerland became neutral following the Treaty of Paris in 1815.
The country’s stance on wind power has been similarly neutral. Though its neighbours are Germany (39.2GW wind capacity at the end of 2014), France (9.3GW), Italy (8.7GW) and Austria (2.1GW), this enthusiasm has not rubbed off on Switzerland. The landlocked nation has just 60MW, with only 34 large turbines installed.
As a result it has quickly slipped behind most of Europe in terms of wind power installed per capita.
Now, finally, it appears to be waking up to the potential of wind.
The Swiss Federal Council is looking to make the country more open to wind investors. It decided in May to raise surcharges that consumers pay to promote renewables, including wind, by 18% to 1.3 Swiss cents/kWh (1.1 euro cents) from the start of 2016.
This gives it a larger pot of money to pay feed-in tariffs to new projects, and thus enables the country to grow wind capacity from its current low level.
The goal of expanding wind energy has also won support of Switzerland’s National Council and an advisory commission of the Swiss Federal Council, which effectively gives wind an ‘official’ status in Swiss energy policy for the first time. Practicalities pending, this should be a boost to investors.
These are only small steps and will make little difference if the government is not keen to push for the development of more wind farms. This is the great unknown. Those involved in the Swiss energy market have defended the government’s record thus far.
Let us consider the view of the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, which says that the growth of wind has not been curtailed because of lack of enthusiasm from Switzerland’s leaders. Rather, it says that few turbines have been built because of the slow process of planning and gaining authorisation for schemes. These are, of course, both roles of government.
The federal office also said investors tend to find their schemes hamstrung by locals who are concerned about how projects look; how they might be affected by noise from turbines; and concerns about the effects that projects will have on the environment and wildlife. Any developer with a track record, will know the problems.
And it said that Swiss leaders had approved projects with 600 turbines, with a further 325 on a waiting list. With only 34 turbines built, these projects are getting stuck somewhere.
This should make investors wary. Developers in most countries face issues from problems with local bureaucracy and hostile locals, but governments can make schemes happen if they are serious enough about backing renewables. The fact this has not happened so far in Switzerland should make investors question the realities of such matters.
Raising wind surcharges is a step in the right direction but tackling the Swiss track record requires more than just a quick fix.
Four Republican congressmen have called for a halt to US offshore wind projects because of unsubstantiated claims blaming the industry for whale deaths. But this obvious misinformation can still be a threat for the growth of the industry.