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Nestled among the picturesque Swiss Alps, Switzerland has long been hailed as Europe’s water vessel, with its majestic rivers – the Rhine, the Rhone, the Inn, and the Ticino – coursing through its valleys and nourishing distant lands like the North Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. For centuries, these waterways have been vital arteries of life and commerce. However, as the world confronts the harsh realities of climate change, even the Swiss have come to recognize that water, once considered an inexhaustible resource, is facing unprecedented challenges.

In recent years, Switzerland’s weather patterns have been shifting dramatically. The signs are clear: prolonged droughts parch the land, iconic Alpine glaciers are receding at an alarming pace, and intense rainfall triggers destructive flooding and debris flows. These events are not isolated incidents; they are the harbingers of a changing climate that demands urgent adaptation. At the heart of this adaptation lies the crucial practice of water resource management.

Switzerland’s iconic dams have emerged as pivotal players in the country’s water resource management strategy. Amidst this evolving landscape, hydroelectric power producers and dam operators are at the forefront of the battle to safeguard both energy production and the environment. In a blog published by Alpiq, Amédée Murisier, the Head of Hydro Power Generation at the company, delved into the transformative shifts unfolding in the realm of water resource management.

Impacts of climate change

The summer of 2022 brought haunting images: the Gebidem Dam’s overflow contrasted sharply with the nearly desiccated Lake Salanfe, merely 80km away. Is this the face of things to come? Murisier warns that longer droughts, unpredictable heatwaves across all seasons, and snow-starved winters could well become the new normal. While total precipitation might not dwindle significantly, its distribution and form are undergoing a profound transformation. Switzerland, it seems, is feeling the impacts of climate change more acutely than many other regions.

Murisier’s tone grows sombre as he discusses the stark findings of climate scientists’ models. The “eternal ice” of the Alps is disappearing at an alarming rate, with a possibility of near-complete glacial loss by century’s end. The numbers are staggering: a shocking 6 per cent mass loss from alpine glaciers in just one summer. The imperative is clear – immediate action is needed to adapt water management strategies to address this crisis.

As the ice vanishes, so does our natural reservoir. Switzerland must augment its capacity to store water through alternative means. Murisier outlines the potential for constructing dams with large storage capacities, such as the proposal for a dam near the retreating Gorner glacier in Zermatt. This innovation could not only bolster electricity production but also shield the Matter Valley from flooding and facilitate irrigation.

In this endeavour, collective effort is key. Murisier underscores the historical context, from the foresight of 19th-century visionaries who created waterways for irrigation to the 20th-century pioneers who built dams for energy storage. Now, it falls to the current generation to build upon this legacy, forging a water management system that seamlessly integrates electricity security, irrigation, and flood protection.

Empowering the future

For energy producers like Alpiq, the path forward involves enhanced predictive capabilities to gauge water inflows and adapt operations in real time. Recent years have seen remarkable strides, culminating in projects like the Nant de Drance pumped storage power plant. This innovative facility not only balances excess energy but also integrates diverse renewable sources into the energy grid, all while preserving every precious drop of water.

The Nant de Drance pumped storage power plant commenced its operations on 1 July 2022, marking its inaugural year of successful activity in July 2023. Over the past year, this 900MW power plant has demonstrated its vital role in stabilizing both the Swiss and European electricity grids, particularly when faced with intermittent solar and wind power generation. The plant’s reliability has allowed it to respond adeptly to market fluctuations, showcasing its adaptability and importance.

Since its commissioning, the Nant de Drance pumped storage power plant has surpassed expectations with its reliability. Amédée Murisier, Chairman of the Nant de Drance Board of Directors, confirms: ” After just one year in operation, we can already see that the Nant de Drance machines are operating in line with market price trends. In this way, the power plant is fully playing its role in stabilising the electricity grid, thereby contributing to the security of electricity supply.”

Since its commencement, the power plant has generated approximately 950 GWh of electricity and pumped 1,170 GWh. These figures validate the anticipated 80% efficiency of the pumped storage cycles. Alain Sauthier, Director of Nant de Drance SA, expresses his satisfaction with these outcomes, stating, ” I’m delighted to see that the machines at Nant de Drance are being put to good use every day. Partners can take full advantage of the flexibility offered by the plant and optimise the power of the machines to suit their needs.” Notably, Nant de Drance gained access to the full potential of its six machines following the operational launch of the Chamoson-Chippis extra-high voltage line on 30 September 2022.

Nant de Drance remains steadfast in its commitment to implement environmental compensation measures in collaboration with environmental organizations and authorities, as initially outlined in the project’s inception. In late May, Nant de Drance engaged Salvan Primary School in combating exotic and invasive plant species. The students assisted in removing buddleias and narrow-leaved ragwort and also visited a compensation initiative in Vernayaz, involving the restoration of a black alder forest and the creation of habitats conducive to the marsh frog and yellow-bellied toad.

Furthermore, an assessment report, scheduled for this year, will evaluate three compensation measures conducted at the Col de la Gueulaz, the Vieux Emosson dam, and the vicinity of the Saxon canals. The aim is to verify the attainment of the natural objectives outlined during the design of these measures and to implement corrective measures if required.

Another project being developed in Switzerland is the Pradapunt hydropower plant, which could supply 10,000 households one day and would be an important step in expanding Graubünden’s hydropower capacity.

The new Pradapunt power plant will use the slope of the Plessur between Litzirüti and Pradapunt to produce 42GWh of hydropower each year. The new power plant would close the existing gap in the power plant cascade on the Plessur and eliminate the Litzirüti power plant’s discharge fluctuations, which are detrimental to the natural environment.

The project is being developed by the Wasserkraft Plessur’ project consortium who consists of three partners: Arosa Energie, IBC Energie Wasser Chur and Axpo. They had already joined forces and started planning the Pradapunt power plant back in 2014, before suspending the project in 2017 due to the economic outlook. The consortium will now spring back into action, as the framework conditions have improved in recent years.

The consortium is aiming to submit a revised licence application over the course of the coming year. Since the licence and building application procedures will last several years, the earliest the consortium partners could make any investment and construction decisions would be 2027. Building the power plant would take around three years.

This article first appeared in International Water Power magazine.