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Power outage: Swiss cantons set up plans for emergency services

There has been much talk lately about how electricity shortages would impact Switzerland’s essential infrastructure, including access to emergency services. This is how some cantons are preparing for this ‘worst-case’ scenario.

Power outage: Swiss cantons set up plans for emergency services
When there is no more electricity, you can't summon emergency services. Image by Mimzy from Pixabay

Though Switzerland buys most of its natural gas through various European distribution channels, almost half of the country’s supply — an estimated 47 percent — is of Russian origin. 

As gas is used to generate electricity, it is no wonder that Swiss authorities are worried about what would happen to essential services if the power goes out.

“We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland. In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us”, Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said during a press conference in June.

She added that “the energy crisis could hit us hard. That’s why we are concerned about preparing for emergencies.”

READ MORE: ‘It could hit us hard’: Switzerland prepares for impending gas shortage

When the power goes out, telephone service for fixed lines does too. While mobile phones will continue to work for as long as their batteries are charged, they too will ‘die’ if electricity is cut for an extended period of time.

For instance, Swisscom’s current backup power supply “consists of one hour of autonomy on all networks”.

This means that emergency calls for ambulances, police, and fire services will no longer be possible after this timeframe.

Emergency plans

However, some cantons have made contingency plans to manage such crises by setting up the so-called “emergency meeting points” — specially designated areas where residents could drive or walk to if they needed help quickly.

According to Diego Ochsner, head of the Office for Military Affairs and Civil Protection in the canton of Solothurn, these meeting points “are equipped with a Polycom device and an emergency power supply”, allowing unfettered communication with emergency services.

Polycom is a secure radio network used by authorities in crisis situations.

Most of these points are set up in community halls, schools, and sports facilities. You can find your nearest emergency point here.

However, while meeting points exist in a number of cantons — including Bern, St. Gallen, Aargau, Nidwalden, Lucerne, Schaffhausen, Zurich, and Zug — they are lacking in other regions, especially in the French-speaking part of the country.

READ MORE: MAP: Which Swiss cities will be most impacted by a gas shortage this winter?

“From our point of view, the ideal would be for more cantons to set up these points and for the federal government to take charge”, Ochsner said. “Unfortunately, we are still a long way from that.”

The government has not gotten involved in establishing more meeting points because it considers this task to be a cantonal, rather than a federal matter.

What should you do if you live in cantons that don’t provide this service?

The best approach is to inform yourself as soon as possible about the logistics your community has in place for reaching emergency services in case of a power outage.

You can obtain this information from your local civil protection office, which is usually listed on the official website of your canton.

Member comments

  1. Dear Helena Bachman,
    I went to the link site re info on cantons not having established these “meeting sites” and so not know where that sort of information could be found.
    Secondly, Switzerland has been investing in wind power, and in some solar. I wonder where one finds statistics on how much is generated by alternative energy sources that are green, like wind, solar, geothermic, and hydro? Just curious, as this might help some with getting off of oil in general, and Russian oil specifically.
    Lastly, I hear that Switzerland wants to partner more with Africa for its oil, any info around this?
    I appreciate your excellent and professional reporting here, thank you!

    Harriet Matter-Jones, Lausanne, VD

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For members


‘Restrictions and bans’: What to know about Switzerland’s new energy crisis plan

While the issue of power outages is not new and has been debated by the authorities before, the Federal Council has announced the steps it would take if energy becomes scarce in Switzerland.

‘Restrictions and bans’: What to know about Switzerland’s new energy crisis plan

Officials have been hinting that the much-feared shortage of gas, which is used to generate electricity, is not a realistic scenario for Switzerland.

“For this winter, the good news is that the risk of a gas shortage remains relatively low,” Economy Minister Guy Parmelin said earlier in November.

While Switzerland relies heavily on foreign sources, Parmelin pointed out that “in the countries around us, stocks are between 95 and 100 percent full. The Swiss gas industry has also done its job by reserving its 15 percent [of gas] abroad.”

However, the government is preparing for the “worst-case” scenario, such as a serious energy shortage that would impact private households and essential industries alike. On Wednesday, it announced its plan, which the cantons have to respond to by December 12th.

“If a shortage should nevertheless occur, the Federal Council will regulate the electricity supply by means of time-limited measures in order to preserve the stability of the network and to secure the supply. Each level of measures aims to avoid more serious consequences, which would require more drastic measures,” authorities said.

What steps will the government take?

“In the event of a serious electricity shortage, the measures would be adapted to the severity of the shortage and the concrete situation, before the ordinances come into force,” the Federal Council noted.

First: urgent calls to consumers

In case of an imminent shortage, authorities “would first issue urgent calls to reduce consumption to all electricity consumers,” the government said, adding that “at the same time, the Federal Council could decree initial restrictions and bans on use”.

The Federal Council could decree initial restrictions and bans on use.

“These would be tightened in stages, from the drop in the level of comfort (bans on lighting objects, for example) to more restrictive measures (closure of establishments),” authorities said. 

The government’s goal is to implement measures that target the concrete cases, depending on the supply situation, weather conditions, and the consequences for the economy and the population.

Essential goods and services, however, would be preserved “as much as possible.”

READ MORE: Power outage: Swiss cantons set up plans for emergency services

Second : Electricity quota for large consumers

A more restrictive measure — quotas — would be imposed on consumers with an annual consumption of at least 100 megawatt hours (MWh). The quota would affect more than 34,000 large entities, such as companies, who are responsible for almost half of the current consumption in Switzerland.

“Targeting this group of consumers offers significant savings potential,” the Federal Council said.

The quota would be set for a day or a month, depending on the overall situation.

“For winter 2023/2024, a solution will be developed for companies with sites on different distribution networks, so that they can be subject to the same quota throughout Switzerland.”

READ MORE : What are Switzerland’s new heating rules if there’s an energy shortage?

Third : Load shedding

This last-resort solution is the regulated measure to prevent the widespread network from collapsing and causing a blackout.

However, consumer groups providing vital services, such as power and water supply facilities, emergency response and basic medical care, could be exempted from load shedding to the extent that technical conditions allow it, which would rarely be the case, the Federal Council said.

Therefore, “power cuts would have far-reaching consequences for the economy and the population, and would be accompanied by restrictions with far-reaching consequences. This is why every effort is made to avoid them.”

You, as an individual or a household, can play a part in cutting energy consumption as well. This is how:

What the Swiss government is asking you to do to save energy