Energy in the Alps


Resources of Mountainous Regions

Hydroelectric power stations with large reservoirs such as the Lago di Luzzone in the Valle Blenio in Switzerland generate the largest share of energy in the Alps. (Source: L.Ulrich)
Due to the mountainous geomorphology of the Alpine region, hydropower presents a significant energy resource. Comprehensive data are lacking, however. An overview elaborated for the 2nd Alp Report collected data on over one hundred large hydroelectric dams with an installed capacity of over 28 Gigawatt [GW], producing over 46 Terawatt-hours electricity each year [TWh/yr] (CIPRA 2001). A significant proportion of these power plants are storage plants delivering valuable peak-load power. A considerable number of dams exist that use cheap offload power (mostly from nuclear or coal-fired plants) to pump water into elevated reservoirs and produce valuable peak-load electricity later. In general, water flows are largest in spring and summer and lowest in winter, implying that hydropower delivers less electricity in winter (when demand is highest) and more in summer. In principle, this could favour a combination with wind power plants that usually produce more electricity in winter than in summer. Climate change is expected to have significant impacts on Alpine hydrology. Most simulations currently suggest a negative impact of climate-change driven alterations in water flows on the performance of the Alpine hydropower system.

Forest cover in the Alpine region. (Source: © Institute of Social Ecology, K.-H. ERB (personal communication, 2007), based on MODIS tree cover data (see FRIEDL, M.A. et al., (2002). Global land cover mapping from MODIS: algorithms and early results. Remote Sensing of Environment 83 (1-2), 287-302.)

The construction of new hydropower plants is proposed as an option to produce more renewable energy. Hydropower plants, however, can have negative effects on river ecosystems and adjacent areas such as floodplains or alluvial forests. They may affect water quality, fish and other aquatic species, sediment transport and many other important ecosystem functions and services. As a consequence, the construction of hydroelectric plants still is one of the most contentious energy-related issues in the Alps, and nature conservationists as well as the local population often strongly oppose new projects.

The alpine region is characterized by a large proportion of forest cover, whereas its agricultural potential is limited due to the mountainous landscape. The potential to produce bio-energy on cropland is thus limited, but firewood has always been and continues to be an important resource. The forest area in the Alpine region is growing, as is the volume of standing timber.

This suggests some potential to increase the use of wood for energy provision without endangering mountain forests.

There are no nuclear power stations within the Alpine Arc, but there are some in close vicinity such as the Gösgen Nuclear Power Station in Switzerland. (Copyright: D. DIETWILER)

On the other hand, Alpine forests supply a large range of vital ecosystem services including, among others, water retention, protection against landslides, avalanches, floods etc., biodiversity and soil conservation as well as carbon sequestration.

Plans to increase bio-energy production of Alpine forests must be carefully balanced against the need to maintain or even increase the ability of forest ecosystems to deliver these indispensable services.

No nuclear power plants are located in the Alps, but France, Slovenia and Switzerland continue to use nuclear power; some of their plants are in the immediate vicinity of the Alpine region. As almost everywhere else in the world, there is an ongoing intensive dispute over nuclear power in the Alpine countries as well. Due to their operation as base-load plants, nuclear power plants are an important source of electricity used to feed pumped storage power plants in the Alpine arch.
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Further Readings & Links

This special issue of the Swiss Federal Office for Water and Geology presents a summary of arguments from supporters of hydropower development in the Alps.

APER (2007)
A short analysis of the use of hydroelectric power in Europe and Italy.

A report on the impacts of climate change on hydropower production in the alps.

This issue of "energie extra" discusses the great energy saving potential or even energy generation potential in communal water supply and wastewater management systems.

CIPRA International (2004)
The publication discusses the ecological and economical potential of a region to use local wood.

Information brochure from Swiss Energy on sustainable energy production from Swiss forests.