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Managing our water resources wisely

Switzerland is the Europe’s water vessel. Major streams and rivers such as the Rhine, the Rhone, the Inn and the Ticino carry great masses of water from Switzerland to the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

In recent years, however, even we Swiss have come to realise that water is not an infinite resource. Our weather patterns are changing. Lengthy droughts, the rapid melting of the Alpine glaciers, and heavy rainfall – causing debris flows and flooding – are clear signals that the climate is gradually warming and that we will have to adapt.  

Against this backdrop, water resource management has become increasingly important for energy producers and operators of hydroelectric power plants in Switzerland. And our big dams are playing a key role. In this interview with Amédée Murisier, Head Hydro Power Generation at Alpiq, we discuss the changes that have been taking place in water resource management.

Amédée Murisier

Head Hydro Power Generation at Alpiq

The alarming images of summer 2022 are etched in our memory: the Gebidem Dam spilled over while Lake Salanfe, only 80km away, almost dried out. Is this something we can expect to see regularly?

Yes, it’s likely that we will have longer droughts, heatwaves during any season, and winters with little or no snow. Precipitation patterns are changing. We might not necessarily have less precipitation, but it might occur in a different form, for example, rain instead of snow and heavy downpours rather than constant drizzle. It’s already obvious that climate change is affecting Switzerland more than other regions.

What does this mean?

The models run by climate scientists don’t look promising. There are unlikely to be any large glacier masses left by the end of the century – our ‘eternal ice’ is melting, and perhaps faster than we first thought. Last summer alone, our alpine glaciers lost more than 6 percent of their mass. That’s unprecedented. We have to tackle this situation now by adapting our water management.

What options do we have?

We’re losing more and more of our water that’s stored in the form of ice – so we will have to increase our ability to store water in other ways. We need to make it manageable. Water is an effective way to store energy. We already have several dams in the Alps, including many operated by Alpiq in the Valais, but there is still some potential to construct more with big storage capacities with comparably limited impact on the environment, for example in Zermatt, where the Gorner glacier is retreating. A dam there would allow us to store the water and use it for electricity production in the winter, protect the Matter Valley from flooding, and use the water for irrigation.

You mentioned that we need to improve our management of water as a resource. How can we achieve that?

It’s largely about increasing our awareness of the value of water. Two centuries ago, our forefathers in the Valais constructed waterways for irrigation because the Valais had very dry regions. This made water accessible throughout the whole valley and allowed people there to cultivate wine and produce agricultural goods. Then, in the 20th century, our great-grandparents were visionary enough to build dams to store water in the summer and generate electricity for the winter. Now it’s our task to extend this into a system that increases our flexibility to use water to ensure the security of the electricity supply, provide irrigation, and protect against floods. To achieve this, we will have to work together closely.

What does this mean for an energy producer like Alpiq?

It means we will need to increase our ability to predict inflows and adapt our planning to the actual availability of water at any given time. And we’ll need to be able to store the water for use at those times when it’s most needed. We’ve already made huge progress in the past couple of years and we’re seeing that this isn’t just having an impact on the environment, but also on the sustainability of our business. We can further optimise our production towards ensuring security of supply and providing services that stabilise the electricity grid.

You mentioned progress. Can you give an example?

Yes, take our powerful new pump-storage power plant at Nant de Drance. It’s driving the integration of other renewable energy sources into the market by enabling us to take excess energy out of the system and store water in the upper lake, or turbine the water from the upper lake to the lower lake when more energy is needed. And that’s without losing a single drop of water from the system.

And why is closer collaboration so important?

Because water is a common good. We have to bring different interests together in order to extract the most value out of it and allocate its use optimally and for multiple purposes. This will require excellent resource management of water. Thankfully, Alpiq has excellent know-how in this respect as we’ve already been working on this for a long time.

Thank you for these insights, Amédée!