Christoph Imboden: "Just generating more electricity is not enough".

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Energy model regions ©Energie Schweiz

Energy model regions ©Energie Schweiz

Reservoirs and solar panels alone will not lead us to an energy supply without CO2 emissions. How the energy is used is just as crucial. Our expert Christoph Imboden helps regions get the most out of their resources.

Christoph Imboden, Switzerland has set itself the goal of being climate-neutral by 2050. Why are different regions positioned so differently here?

There are over 600 independent energy supply companies in Switzerland. In many cases, this is due to historical reasons, corresponds to the idea of independence of the municipalities and takes local conditions into account. The challenges of a tourism-oriented mountain region with local hydropower on the way to climate neutrality are not the same as those of an urban region with high traffic volumes, dense development and emission-intensive industry.

With the project "Energy Model Regions", the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts wants to support regions on their way to an energy future withoutCO2 emissions. It is already doing this with energy research in a wide range of areas. What is special about your project?

Many energy projects of the Department of Engineering & Architecture address very specific questions. What we now offer with the "Energy Model Regions" beyond that is an overall view of a region and its energy supply, from people to buildings and mobility to industry. By taking a holistic approach, we increase the impact and gain support from the local community.

How do you go about it?

In very concrete terms, we go to interested partners in the region with a catalog of more than 50 ideas from the applied research of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts - these can be municipalities, cantons or even energy suppliers. This catalog has proven to be a fruitful food for thought. What it cannot and should not provide are ready-made solutions. It is always a matter of clarifying the conditions very precisely and adapting solutions. In this way, we can support the regions in achieving the highest possible degree of self-sufficiency.

So the question is not just where a dam makes sense or where wind turbines need to be located most effectively?

There is much more to it. These sources generate electricity. That’s important for a future without fossil fuels, and it’s becoming increasingly important. But producing more electricity is not enough. It’s also about alternative energy sources or how energy can be saved or how it can be distributed and stored. One example of savings: Heating and cooling cause a large proportion of energy consumption in industrial processes. A lot of energy can be saved here by optimally linking energy flows. Thermal energy storage systems, in turn, can shift energy in the form of heat from day to night or even from summer to winter. Here, too, we have the necessary expertise at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. And as a final example, back to electricity: here, too, it is not enough to generate it in a climate-neutral way; it must be distributed and used sensibly. The existing grid, however, is designed for an energy supply from central power plants and not for the irregular energy production from the sun or wind, and it is also not designed for electric cars or heat pumps in large numbers.

What problems does this create for electricity production?

For one thing, there are times when a lot of energy is consumed throughout the region. These do not necessarily coincide with those when a lot of energy is produced from renewable sources. So we have to find sustainable and economical solutions to be able to supply those who really need the electricity at that exact time, even during a peak load.

What does this mean for our power grid?

Today, the Swiss power grid generally still has reserves, so it can cover peak loads well. However, this will change with the further expansion of PV, heat pumps and electric charging stations if we do not find solutions to control the energy flows. On the part of the energy suppliers, so-called load management is required here, because load peaks are very expensive for energy suppliers, as lines and transformers have to be designed for these peaks. So we have to figure out how to redistribute the load at such moments, and where exactly the grid really needs to be reinforced.

How do you know where the energy is not needed right now?

For improved load management, you need to know two things: Who needs how much energy where and when? And where can less energy be supplied at times of high load? To do this, you need solid data. Now, the grid operators collect various data, but mostly at the higher voltage levels. Our team therefore also helps to optimize the evaluation of consumer data in order to answer precisely this question of where energy is currently not needed.

Is the "energy model region" project only about electricity?

No, the project takes a holistic view of a region’s energy supply. This also includes the heat supply, for example with thermal local and district heating networks, or the provision of energy for winter and mobility with alternative energy sources such as hydrogen. Sustainable hydrogen production in particular has great potential. Surplus energy from the summer can be easily stored for the winter, or used to power large trucks. This requires infrastructure and cooperations that still have to be established.

You mentioned the energy market earlier. Is it also an economic question whether we will reach the goal of net zeroCO2 emissions in time?

In any case, there are many different factors involved, including financial ones - the best solution is of no use if its implementation ruins a region. But it’s also about political processes; the needs of different actors have to be included, from the factory owner to the politician to the population as a whole. We can help regions bring together actors who have had too little to do with each other or with energy issues. Thanks to all this different expertise, the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts can play its role as the region’s think tank even better and thus accelerate the path to a Switzerland with net zero C02 emissions.

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