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General information about small hydropower

Decentral form of energy production

In the past century, trade and industry in Switzerland were supplied with energy from more than 10,000 small hydropower plants. In 1914 the Swiss water rights register listed 7,000 small hydropower plants with an output up to 10 megawatts (MW). More than 90 percent of these were facilities with a low output up to 300 kilowatts (kW), e.g. waterwheels or small turbines.

The expansion of the electricity grid to cover the entire country, together with the availability of low-priced energy from major power plants and competition from combustion engines that were both cheap and flexible, numerous small hydropower plants were closed down in the course of the 20th century.

In 1985, only around 1,000 small hydropower plants (< 10 MW) were still producing electricity, approximately 700 of which had an output of up to 300 kW. In addition there were around 400 facilities with purely mechanical use of power.

In 1990, perhaps prompted by the Chernobyl reactor disaster and the growing threat of climate change the Swiss electorate voted in favour of the incorporation of an energy article into the Federal Constitution. This move led to the adoption of the resolution on energy use in 1991, which paved the way for a new economic basis for renewable energy. Thanks to the introduction in 2008 of remuneration for feed-in at cost, even the smallest hydropower plants can now produce electricity profitably again. We can therefore expect a great deal of the enormous potential to be exploited again in the near future.

Relevance of small hydropower

In 2004 the production of electricity from small hydropower plants (< 10 MW) was estimated at around 3,400 gigawatt hours (GWh), which is equivalent to approximately 9.5 percent of total hydropower production. 490 GWh are produced in power plants with an output of less than 1 MW (1.4 percent), and around half of this comes from plants with an output of less than 300 kW.  The statistics relating to small hydropower plants are currently under revision.

Related documents

Statistics of hydroelectric installations in Switzerland
Statistics concerning renewable energy
SFOE policy paper on energy from small hydropower plants

Further information

Electricity statistics
Overall energy statistics
Contact: Martin Bölli
Last update: 08.10.2009

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