Dams generate hopes and fears

by Julia Slater, in Lucerne, swissinfo.ch

Concerns about both climate change and safe energy supply in the post-Fukushima world have given a new impulse to one of Switzerland’s specialities: hydroelectricity.

About 900 experts in dams from all over the world converged on Lucerne this week for the annual symposium of the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) to exchange experiences and to see how the Swiss do things.

Switzerland has a long history of dam building: the oldest dam still in use is the Wenigerweiher in the eastern canton of St Gallen, built in 1822, and today the country has the greatest density of dams in the world. The golden age of dam building was in the 1960s and 70s, and the experience acquired has since been put to use elsewhere: dam engineering is a Swiss “export item,” according to Walter Steinmann, head of the Federal Energy Office.

With the Swiss government’s recent decision to phase out nuclear power, hydroelectricity – which already covers about 60 per cent of Switzerland’s energy needs – is an obvious alternative source.

“In the last ten years we have had small hydropower projects, and now we think that in the future we will also have larger projects for new hydropower stations,” Steinmann told swissinfo.ch. If current plans for four or five large pumping stations are implemented, Switzerland can become “the battery for electricity production in Europe,” he said.

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