1970–1980: the oil crisis as the birth of sustainability

The fruitful decades after the war saw energy demands in Switzerland skyrocket. New nuclear power plants are planned while the structure of energy consumption is changing. The proportion of fossil fuels in total energy consumption rose from around 24 to 77 per cent between 1950 and 1970. While the Swiss government debates the future energy policy, the country and the whole western world are astonished by the global oil crisis.

Egypt, Syria and other countries are at war with Israel as oil-exporting Arab states deliberately restrict their production to pressure the West with regard to their support for Israel. The price of oil is rising rapidly.

The Swiss Federal Council responds to the shock with savings appeals to the economy and population, reduces the maximum speed on the motorway to 100 km/h and establishes a fuel quota. They also declare three car-free and flight-free Sundays. People now work in a goal-oriented manner towards a long-term overall energy conception with the aim of achieving the most economical, reliable and independent energy supply that also takes environmental concerns into account.

Developing countries without access to electricity
Developing countries are particularly affected by the oil crisis. Even now, 1.6 billion people across the globe have no access to electricity. In 2015, the UNO member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which define the 17 different goals. Goal 7 aims to establish access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030. The aim is not only to achieve energy policy goals. Facilitated access to energy will hopefully bring further positive results: overcoming poverty, increasing food production, providing clean water, improving public health, developing the education system, promoting business and supporting women.

Image caption: The 17 UN goals for sustainable development

How do standards support the SDGs of the United Nations?
The International Organization for Standardization ( ISO) has defined over 200 standards that relate to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Which standards directly contribute towards achieving Goal 7 of the SDGs can be found in the clear list provided by ISO. ISO 50001, for example, supports organizations in achieving an optimal energy management so that energy costs and energy consumption can be reduced and energy efficiency increased.

Sources: Swiss Federal Office of Energy (www.energeiaplus.ch), Wikipedia, German Development Institute

20 years of Swiss energy law

On 1 January 1999, the first Swiss Energy Act came into force, 26 years after the oil price crisis. On the occasion of its 20th anniversary in 2019, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) is publishing a comprehensive look back at an exciting piece of Swiss political history via a five-part blog series.

Image caption: Car-free Sunday 1973 in Zurich (source: Keystone)

On 25 November 1973, Switzerland saw empty motorways, main roads and side roads. Perlen aus dem Archiv (Pearls from the Archive) by Swiss Radio and Television (SRF) shows the historical film footage.

Those who did not want to give up their beloved Sunday trips had to travel without their cars, which at the time were highly revered. The first Sunday driving ban in Switzerland turned out to be a true happening: old bicycles were brought out of the cellar and made roadworthy again, the streets became roller skating rinks, walkers strolled along major transport routes. The Swiss people took the first Sunday driving ban with a lot of humour, even if the backdrop was highly serious.

The oil crisis as a turning point for technical progress

Much has happened since the oil shock of 1973. A global search is being conducted for sustainable and safe technologies. In Switzerland, employees at Empa are also working on solutions for the mobility of the future. Christian Bach, Head of the Automotive Powertrain Technologies department, investigates the possibilities for reducing the environmental and climate impact of road mobility. In the following interview, he shows what we can expect particularly from hydrogen. Christian Bach was also involved in the development of the standard SN 277206 (Swiss standard for testing particle filter systems).

Image description: Christian Bach, Head of the Automotive Powertrain Technologies department at Empa

1) SNV: In the 1970s, the oil crisis made it clear that fossil fuels will not be available indefinitely. Which alternative drive resources are you currently testing at Empa?

Christian Bach: In principle, renewable biogenic energy sources as well as nuclear and renewable electricity are the only alternatives to fossil sources. Since nuclear energy is being reduced and biogenic energy sources only have a limited quantity structure, only renewable electrical energy remains as an option. That’s why we at Empa focus on that.

2) You are testing a hydrogen plant for refuelling. Is this the future?

There is no way to get around hydrogen, so we should investigate its direct application. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that hydrogen mobility has a future. However, we do not see the initial application in the field of passenger cars, but in lorry distribution transport as well as local vehicles (municipal vehicles, buses), as these can be usefully operated with limited infrastructure development.

3) Since when has this test been running and how is the research team put together?

The plant was developed in two stages. The 350-bar refuelling was put into operation in 2014 and the 700-bar refuelling in 2016. While the refuelling stages were being established, issues related to energy and technology were investigated within the scope of projects. Key tasks here were consulting Suva and the cantonal fire insurances to clarify questions related to security, and consulting the Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS) about suitability for verification. At the same time, detailed investigations and simulations were carried out to fill the H2 tanks in the vehicle.

4) Is hydrogen available without limits?

Hydrogen is not present in an unbounded form in nature, but must be generated. While industrial hydrogen is still produced primarily through steam reforming from a fossil energy source (natural gas) for cost reasons, energy hydrogen is produced electrolytically from renewable electricity. This is the only way to achieve a CO2 reduction in vehicles. As a result, the central issue is whether renewable electricity is available without limits, and that is where we see the great appeal of this technology: there aren’t actually physical limits for renewable electricity. The sun sends much more energy to earth than humanity will ever need. The difficulty lies in the “harvest” of this solar energy as well as in transport and distribution.

5) Who supplies hydrogen? Is it possible to produce hydrogen in Switzerland?

As part of a study financed by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), we examined the potentials for the production of energy hydrogen in Switzerland, if and when nuclear energy is reduced in the amount of 25 TWh and the addition of 50 per cent of the potential of photovoltaics (PV) in Switzerland (approximately 25 TWh) is implemented. A high temporal and geographical resolution was used initially. It is interesting to note that of the 25 TWh of PV electricity, even when compensated over whole weeks, around 10 TWh cannot be used in the electricity market because electricity demand can already be largely covered by hydropower. An export (as today) is also unlikely, since the neighbouring regions also invest heavily in PV and will therefore also have excess electricity. The only realistic alternative is hydrogen production. This will link the electricity sector to the mobility sector – we will investigate how to do this in the mobility demonstrator known as move.

Image description: Future Mobility Demonstrator move with stationary battery storage and charging station for electric vehicles, a hydrogen production, storage and refuelling system for fuel cell vehicles and a planned methanation system with atmospheric CO2 supply for gas-powered vehicles

6) What exactly are these tests?

We are investigating the smoothing of PV peaks with batteries and the provision of electricity for electromobility as well as hydrogen production for fuel cell mobility. For this purpose, we have set up systems equipped with numerous sensors, to investigate, for example, the intermittent and dynamic operation with regard to ageing/wear or the efficiencies in dynamic operation. At the moment, we are planning to expand the plant with a methanation system to produce synthetic methane for gas-powered vehicles from hydrogen and CO2 in the atmosphere.

7) What are currently the biggest challenges related to this method?

The biggest challenge is economic viability. It is not possible to develop economic viability simply by linking technologies. Optimally designed and operated systems are required. These must also be used for network stabilization. Due to the low proportion of energy costs in total costs within the field of road mobility, this is predestined for initial application. Other areas may follow in the longer term.

8) In Dübendorf, a hydrogen-powered sweeper is being tested for everyday usage. What are the current experiences with it?

The experiences were very positive. Overall, energy consumption compared to diesel-hydraulic machines could be reduced by well over 50 per cent, in particular due to the switch from hydraulic to electric power distribution. However, it is also evident that investment costs for such vehicles are still too high. The fuel cell system costs must still be significantly reduced for use in such vehicles.

9) Where do you currently see the greatest potential for mass-produced fuel?

We see lorry distribution transport as the initial field of application of hydrogen as a fuel since electric and fuel cell lorries are exempt from the heavy goods vehicle charge and mineral oil tax. These account for around 50 per cent of the total costs.

10) Will a single fuel replace petrol and diesel? Or is it possible to expect different alternatives?

No, we don’t think so. We believe that short-haul and medium-haul applications in the passenger car, delivery van and lorry sectors will be covered electrically, while medium-haul and long-haul applications will be covered by synthetic fuels in internal combustion engine vehicles. These concepts all have similarly low total CO2 emissions. In the passenger car sector, electromobility is likely to be primarily battery electric, while in the delivery van and lorry sectors it is expected to be fuel cell electric.

11) Are there any plans for what to test next?

As previously mentioned, we are currently planning an extension with a methanation plant. With this, we will be copying natural energy supply (photosynthesis): chlorophyll splits water into oxygen and hydrogen using sunlight, and the hydrogen is converted into carbohydrates with CO2 from the atmosphere. In our plant, these steps will be accomplished through technology, whereby we will produce a hydrocarbon rather than carbohydrates. However, the carbon cycle is closed just like in nature.

12) Is Empa making special efforts to reduce CO2 emissions in relation to jobs and work processes?

Empa has a high energy consumption level due to the many laboratories and devices with special requirements (vacuum, high or low temperature, air conditioning, etc.). As a result, an ambitious, low-CO2 energy concept was developed some time ago based on well-known and proven elements (e.g. energy-oriented renovation, low-temperature heating, PV, combined heat and power [CHP]) as well as on new technologies (e.g. anergy, seasonal heat storage, waste heat utilization) and is now being gradually implemented. A major source of CO2 is flights to conferences and international project meetings. If possible, these should be reduced by travelling by train or by car. In addition, we are investigating the increased use of virtual meetings and are participating in campaigns to encourage commuters to switch to public transport or bicycles.

Christian Bach, thank you so much for the interview.

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