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The forces of flowing water have been used in a variety of ways for centuries, and were an important factor in the industrialisation process. Other uses of the potentials of small hydropower are not so widely known.

Drinking water power plants

Thanks to its location in the region of the Alps, Switzerland possesses countless sources for drinking water or irrigation, many of which have a very steep gradient between the source, the reservoir and the distribution network. The resulting pressure is usually too high for the distribution network, and therefore needs to be reduced.

In the past, pressure reduction valves or shafts were frequently used for this purpose. These reduce not only the pressure, but also the potential energy of the water, and convert it into useless heat. However, the energy can just as easily be converted into electricity with the aid of a turbine. Many water supply companies have gradients in their supply pipelines and distribution networks that are sufficient for the production of electricity. Drinking water power plants are an attractive option since they permit optimal utilisation of the available resources and can be constructed at relatively little extra cost.

Waste water power plants

There are almost 900 sewage treatment plants currently in operation in Switzerland, and these are capable of treating around 5 million cubic metres of water per day. Some of them are fed with water from agglomerations at a higher altitude with the aid of pressure pipes.

In both sewage treatment plants that are located within the agglomeration itself, as well as lower-lying facilities, it is often the case that a gradient exists before or after the plant that can be used for electricity production.

There are two main principles here:

  • A pressure pipe can be used to transport the waste water to a lower-lying sewage treatment plant, where the untreated water can be fed through a turbine to produce electricity
  • A pressure pipe can be used to transport the purified water from the sewage treatment plant into a natural body of water, where it can be fed through a turbine to produce electricity

Weir power plants

Weir power plants can to some extent be regarded as power plants within power plants. They are usually integrated into the weirs of hydropower plants and utilise the legally required quantity of residual water to produce electricity with the aid of a turbine.

Other applications:

  • Watering (or irrigation) power plants utilise the potentials in irrigation channels. They are fairly uncommon. 
  • Snow-making equipment: the infrastructure (pressure pipes, pumps, network connection) for producing artificial snow on ski slopes can be used during the summer for the production of electricity. The additional costs for energy production are therefore low.
  • Tunnel power plants: water that builds up in tunnels (e.g. from karst sources) is retained in drainage systems and can be fed through a turbine before it is removed.
  • Water flow (kinetic energy) power plants: these utilise the kinetic energy in flowing water. However, the corresponding technology has not yet been sufficiently researched, and there are as yet no facilities of this type in Switzerland.

Related documents

Electricity from drinking water and sewage treatment systems


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Contact: Martin Bölli
Last update: 26.10.2009

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