In 2012, the Federal Council launched two national research programmes devoted to energy. These two NRPs (NRP 70 ‘Energy Turnaround’ and NRP 71 ‘Managing Energy Consumption’) produced new technologies and innovative approaches that can contribute to sustainable and efficient energy production and use. On 28 October, the Federal Council took note of the summary report on these two NRPs, which were consolidated under the title ‘NRP Energy’. This report included a series of recommendations that highlight the fact that a successful energy transition is more than just a technical challenge.
Energy in various forms is an essential part of our society, as the energy system forms the basis for mobility, countless industrial processes, the provision of heat in buildings and many activities in our digital society. At the same time, political decisions in recent years have set the course for the future development of the Swiss energy system. The Energy Strategy 2050 is particularly noteworthy in that regard as it was on that basis that the Federal Council and Parliament decided to phase out nuclear power. That decision and other far-reaching changes in the international energy landscape (e.g. climate policy-related changes), require a restructuring of the Swiss energy system.
Constructive dialogue and a wide range of topics
Given the desired restructuring of the Swiss energy system and the wide range of demands placed on the system, the Federal Council launched two national research programmes (NRPs) in 2012: NRP 70 ‘Energy Turnaround’, which focuses on the scientific, technical and economic factors involved in this endeavour, and NRP 71 ‘Managing Energy Consumption’, which examines social and regulatory aspects. The consolidation of these two NRPs under the title ‘NRP Energy’ has led to constructive dialogue and exchange between researchers in the various disciplines.
A total CHF 45 million was allocated to 103 projects. Examples include a project on innovative storage technologies for electricity (e.g. in the form of compressed air) and a study of the potential impact that a change in environmental tax could have on the energy transition. Other projects focused on the impact of soft regulatory options such as encouraging environmentally friendly behaviour (e.g. buying electricity from renewable energy sources as a standard practice).
The National Research Programmes are the federal government’s research funding tool to support research projects that develop knowledge useful to guiding decisions and practices – and thereby contribute to solving current social and economic challenges. At the request of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research EAER, the Federal Council periodically decides which topics should be addressed in new NRPs and the budget for each. It then mandates the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF to implement them.
The SNSF typically allocates a total of CHF 10 to 20 million for NRP projects. NRP projects are solution-oriented and actionable, inter- and transdisciplinary, and are mutually geared towards a common objective. NRPs usually run for around five years. So far, the SNSF has launched a total of almost 80 NRPs covering a wide range of topics. The most recent NRP ‘Covid-19’ (NRP 78) was launched in spring 2020.
Challenges facing the energy transition
Because the energy system is intrinsically linked to other systems in society, its transformation will also have an impact on a large number of stakeholders. The social and technical challenges of transforming the energy system are correspondingly diverse, as ‘NRP Energy" shows. For example, environmental challenges such as particulate matter and greenhouse gas emissions from energy production need to be taken into account just as much as economic and political concerns. Changing values in society also shape the energy debate. For example, nuclear power was long regarded as a clean form of energy and therefore worthy of public support because relatively few greenhouse gases are emitted during electricity production in nuclear power plants. After the Fukushima accident in 2011, the Swiss public’s perception of nuclear power shifted, which meant that any proposals for new nuclear power plants were unlikely to be approved.
More than just technical challenges
The summary report for ‘NRP Energy’ includes 15 overarching recommendations. These cover a number of different aspects, in line with the broad disciplinary coverage and wide range of different topics. One recommendation is that hydropower in Switzerland should focus on its stabilising function within the energy system in order to offset fluctuations in electricity production associated with solar and wind power, which depend on weather conditions. Other recommendations stress the importance of involving civil society in planning procedures and funding models for infrastructure projects.
In putting forward these recommendations, ‘NRP Energy’ makes it clear that energy transition cannot be implemented through purely technical measures. Rather, this endeavour requires a range of different instruments that can contribute to more efficient and sustainable energy production and popular support for its use.
The findings of NRP Energy show that the transformation of the energy system is a major challenge. At the same time, new approaches were developed to address this transformation in a targeted fashion. Given the high quality of research findings and the successful transfer of knowledge and technology, the two completed NRPs can be regarded as successful.
Claudine Dolt, SERI
Scientific Advisor, National Research Section
Benedikt Knüsel, SERI
Scientific Advisor, National Research Section