On 8 January 2021, a temporary fault affected Europe’s power grid that could have shut down the entire European network. A total blackout was only avoided thanks to the combined efforts of all the electricity grid operators and a controlled shutdown of service to consumers in France and Italy. The reason for the narrowly avoided disaster: the failure of various key components in Europe’s power grid triggered the closure of several subnetworks for about an hour.
As with similar incidents in the past, this episode demonstrated that acute power outages are possible even in highly developed countries. At the same time, the energy industry is currently in a transition phase. The Energy Strategy 2050 commits Switzerland to a gradual withdrawal from nuclear energy, coupled with improved energy efficiency and the expansion of renewables. In addition, the government has set a target of net zero emissions by 2050.
But what happens if there is another serious technical problem, or perhaps political or economic shocks? Answering this question is the task of ten institutions involved in the project “SURE” (SUstainable and Resilient Energy for Switzerland), with a budget of six million Swiss francs. It is one of four projects in the first call for the new funding programme SWEET (SWiss Energy research for the Energy Transition) backed by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy.
Over the next six years, researchers will study specific events that could affect Switzerland’s energy system in the future and find ways to make the energy supply as sustainable, adaptable and resilient as possible. “Apart from sustainability, making Switzerland’s energy supply secure and self-sufficient is the top priority,” says Tom Kober, Head of the Energy Economics Group in the Laboratory of Energy Systems Analysis at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI, and coordinator of the SURE project.
Many different factors in play
Unexpected shocks – which Tom Kober refers to as “disruptive events” – can have many different causes. For example, critical energy infrastructures may not be fully available due to technical or energy policy constraints, or extreme weather events might substantially limit the country’s electricity generation capacity in the short term.
But it is not always catastrophes that limit the energy supply as examples such as hydroelectric plants, deep geothermal energy systems or large-scale solar parks have shown time and again: other factors may influence the breakthrough of individual energy technologies, such as public acceptance, overall regulatory conditions or funding arrangements. That’s why these aspects also play an important role in the resilience of the future energy system.
Against this backdrop, the SURE project has focused from the very start on close collaboration with 16 practitioners, including local authorities, energy providers and policymakers. Three case studies in Ticino, Zurich and the Basel region focus on specific aspects. In the Basel area, for example, the emphasis is on the sustainability and resilience of the power supply for local industry. The partners will organise regular workshops to coordinate the research goals and requirements of the different actors and develop strategic instruments to support decision-makers.
Future plans include an online platform to help a broad section of the public better understand the tradeoffs between the various dimensions of sustainability and resilience, and to resolve the potential conflicts between competing measures for achieving a sustainable and stable energy supply in future SURE’s goal is to support policy makers, technology developers, and businesses with recommendations and guidelines, to help them shape their respective strategies for a more sustainable and resilient energy future.
Breaking into new territory with holistic modelling methods
The SURE project is new territory for the research partners. Switzerland has a long tradition of computer modelling of energy scenarios. This includes projects funded under the programme for Swiss Competence Centers for Energy Research (SCCER), which concluded last year. To date, however, Switzerland has never had modelling that covers shock scenarios stretching well into the future – up to 2035 or even 2050 – combined with an analytical approach based on a broad range of indicators.
Furthermore, computer models for such diverse aspects as infrastructure, renewables, energy efficiency, sustainability, supply security and cost efficiency have never been knit tightly together with such a systematic approach. “This is definitely a first, and we want to develop our quantitative models and indicators further along these lines,” says Tom Kober. To this end, SURE is also cooperating closely with three other SWEET projects researching innovations in the field of renewables in order to support the implementation of the Energy Strategy 2050.
SWEET brings together nine leading Swiss research institutions, including ETH Zurich and EPFL Lausanne, plus a sole foreign partner: the consultancy E3-Modelling in Athens, which has built an international reputation for its model analysing technical and economic interlinkages at the European and global levels.
The consortium of the SURE project includes the following research partners funded by the SWEET program of the Swiss Federal Office of Energy:
- Paul Scherrer Institute
- ETH Zurich
- École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne
- Università della Svizzera italiana
- TEP Energy GmbH
- University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland
- University of Bern
- Université de Genève
- Zurich University of Applied Sciences ZHAW
- E3-Modelling S.A