On January 8, 2021, a temporary fault affected the European power grid which could shut down the entire European grid. A complete blackout was only avoided thanks to the combined efforts of all grid operators and controlled outages of service to consumers in France and Italy. The reason for the avoidable catastrophe: the failure of major components on the European power grid triggered the closure of several subnetworks for about an hour.
Like similar incidents in the past, this episode shows 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 phased withdrawal from nuclear energy, coupled with energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy expansion. In addition, the government has set a net zero emission target by 2050.
But what happens if there are other serious technical problems, or perhaps political or economic shocks? Answering this question is the task of the ten institutions involved in the “PASTI” (Deliverable and Resilient Energy for Switzerland) project, with a budget of six million Swiss francs. It is one of four projects in the first call for a new SWEET (SWEET Energy research for Energy Transition) funding program supported by the Swiss Federal Energy Office.
Over the next six years, researchers will study specific events that could affect the future Swiss energy system and find ways to make energy supplies as sustainable, adaptable and resilient as possible. “Beyond sustainability, making Switzerland’s energy supply safe and self-sufficient is a top priority,” said Tom Kober, Head of the Energy Economics Group at the Energy Systems Analysis Laboratory at PSI’s Paul Scherrer Institute, and project coordinator of the SURE.
Many different factors come into play
An unexpected shock – what Tom Kober calls a “disturbing event” – can have many different causes. For example, critical energy infrastructure may not be fully available due to technical or energy policy constraints, or extreme weather events could substantially limit the country’s electricity generating capacity in the short term.
But it is not always a disaster that limits energy supply as examples such as hydropower, deep geothermal energy systems or large-scale solar parks have shown time and time again: other factors can influence individual energy technology breakthroughs, such as public acceptance, regulatory conditions or overall funding arrangements. That’s why these aspects also play an important role in the resilience of future energy systems.
Against this background, the SURE project from the start focused on close collaboration with 16 practitioners, including local authorities, energy providers and policy makers. The three case studies in Ticino, Zurich and the Basel region focus on specific aspects. In the Basel region, for example, the emphasis is on the sustainability and resilience of the electricity supply to local industries. Partners will organize regular workshops to coordinate the research objectives and requirements of the various actors and develop strategic instruments to support decision-makers.
Future plans include an online platform to help large segments of society better understand the compromises between the various dimensions of sustainability and resilience, and to resolve potential conflicts between competing measures to achieve a sustainable and stable supply of energy in the future. SURE’s goal is to support policymakers, 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 modeling methods
The SURE project is new territory for research partners. Switzerland has a long tradition of computer modeling energy scenarios. This includes projects funded under the Swiss Competency Center for Energy Research (SCCER) program, which was completed last year. To date, however, Switzerland has never had modeling that covers future shock scenarios – until 2035 or even 2050 – combined with an analytical approach based on multiple indicators.
In addition, computer models for aspects such as infrastructure, renewable energy, energy efficiency, sustainability, supply security and cost efficiency have never been combined with such a systematic approach. “This is definitely a first, and we want to develop our quantitative models and indicators further along these lines,” said Tom Kober. To that end, SURE is also working closely with three other SWEET projects that are researching innovations in the renewable energy sector to support the implementation of the 2050 Energy Strategy.
SWEET brings together nine leading Swiss research institutes, including ETH Zurich and EPFL Lausanne, plus its only foreign partner: the E3-Modeling consultancy in Athens, which has built an international reputation for its models analyzing technical and economic linkages at European and global levels.
The SURE project consortium includes the following research partners who are funded by the SWEET program of the Swiss Federal Energy Office:
- Paul Scherrer Institute
- ETH Zurich
- Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne
- Swiss Italian University
- TEP Energy GmbH
- Southern Swiss University of Applied Sciences and Arts
- University of Bern
- University of Geneva
- Zurich ZHAW University of Applied Sciences
- E3-Modeling SA
Text: Bernd Müller