Overview and recommendations

Against the backdrop of the implementation of Energy Strategy 2050 and the next stages of climate policy, the Swiss Federal Council launched in July 2012 the National Research Programmes “Energy Turnaround” (NRP 70) and “Managing Energy Consumption” (NRP 71) and entrusted the Swiss National Sciences Foundation (SNSF) with their implementation. Above all, this mandate expected a foundation on which to develop the second set of measures of Energy Strategy 2050. Whereas NRP 70 primarily dealt with technological issues, while taking economic aspects into account, NRP 71 specifically addressed the socioeconomic and regulatory aspects of transforming the energy system. The results of both research programmes are consolidated under the title “National Research Programme Energy” (NRP “Energy”).

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Among other influences, the NRP “Energy” is based on the federal government’s “Coordinated Swiss Energy Research” report of 24 April 2012 and the associated dispatch. The Swiss Competence Centres for Energy Research (SCCER), which primarily aim to expand research capacity in the energy sector and thus deal with similar topics to the NRP “Energy”, are also defined here. However, both research initiatives are fully complementary, meaning that there is no duplication.

NRP 70 has a financial framework of CHF 37 million, while the corresponding figure for NRP 71 is CHF 8 million. More than 350 project outlines were submitted in 2013. On the basis of a two-stage, international evaluation process, the Steering Committees selected 15 joint projects from these with a total of 62 sub-projects and 7 individual projects for NRP 70 and 19 individual projects for NRP 71. During the assessment of the projects, focus was placed on the expected contribution to the implementation of Energy Strategy 2050 and on their scientific quality. Over the course of the programme, four complementary studies were added to the total of 103 research projects. With their practical results, these serve to close important thematic gaps in the research portfolio of the NRP “Energy”.

This résumé provides an overview of the challenges (section 2) posed in light of the transformation of the Swiss energy system. It presents the action areas associated with the transformation as well as the approaches developed by the NRP “Energy” (section 3). The résumé closes with those aspects that appear to be especially relevant for the transformation of the energy system from the perspective of the “NRP” Energy (section 4) and the recommendations derived on this basis (section 5). This résumé complements the six thematic syntheses which provide an in-depth insight into the individual subject areas. With the suggested approaches and recommendations, the résumé is especially aimed at those key stakeholders who, to a considerable extent, shape the energy system and can thus influence its development.


The total of more than 100 research projects of the NRP “Energy” have generated a wealth of individual results. Some of these projects have created technological innovations, while others have analysed the economic or social environment. The syntheses available on the web portal www.nrp-energy.ch have brought together thematically related projects and resulted in new, comprehensive findings. Those aspects that appear to be especially relevant for the transformation from the perspective of the NRP “Energy” are highlighted below. It can be seen that the socio-political aspects are just as important for the transformation as the technical ones; they represent the key to implementing technical solutions.

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Untapped potential in the building stock

The operation of buildings accounts for around two-fifths of final energy requirements. Increasing the energy efficiency of the building stock, its energy renovation, is a cornerstone of Energy Strategy 2050. With their roof and facade surfaces, buildings offer a wide range of options for photovoltaics that have not been sufficiently utilised to date.

The energy renovation of the building stock is taking place much too slowly and must be intensified.

At the current renovation rate of only around 1.5 % per year for residential and office buildings, the renovation of old buildings will take until the end of this century – far too long to make the expected contribution to the transformation of the energy system. This process must be accelerated. The promotion measures taken so far are proving to be inadequate.

Building facades offer great potential for photovoltaics.

One of the key technologies for the provision of renewable energy is Photovoltaics. Its output should be almost doubled from today until 2050. In order to achieve this goal, it is necessary for further space to be made available. While PV parks in open spaces enjoy almost zero acceptance in Switzerland, existing (tourism) infrastructure facilities and, above all, building facades offer available potential. However, building-integrated photovoltaics still have a niche existence today. This is due to a lack of knowledge among building owners and architects, a lack of social and political pressure and, at present, still somewhat uncertain costs. With regard to design requirements, the range of PV panels for building-integrated applications already meets high demands today. However, the diversity of offerings is still growing, also thanks to the work of the NRP “Energy”.

Hydropower between investment needs and sustainability

Hydropower remains an essential element of the future Swiss energy system. It makes a significant contribution to the energy supply, contributes to supply security and offsets fluctuations in the provision of electricity. Hydropower also enjoys broad acceptance. There are opportunities to optimise its use. However, its expansion is greatly limited by economic and environmental framework conditions.

Hydropower requires more attention.

The existing hydropower infrastructure requires considerable maintenance. Due to various uncertainties, however, the necessary investments are not made by the power plant owners. The precarious earnings situation in the short to medium term collides with the long-term nature of the necessary investment of several decades. The applicable concession regulations with the foreseeable threat of a reversion of the power plants from their owners to the grantors of concessions also hamper investment.

Hydropower plants require a holistic assessment.

The use of hydropower finds itself in a fundamental conflict with the ecology of natural waters. Numerous hydropower plants still have a need for residual flow remediation. At the same time, the current residual flow regulations are insufficiently implemented in order to achieve the desired biodiversity goals. Retreating glaciers are opening up potential for new reservoirs. However, their use requires a comprehensive sustainability assessment. In future it will not only be necessary to assess individual plants, but also to exploit the potential offered throughout Switzerland, as part of an overall assessment, to determine where the relationship between energy use and environmental damage is most favourable. This calls for greater coordination and the consideration of all hydropower plants in equal measure.

Population motivation

The transformation of the energy system is to a large extent a task for society. Each and every one of us is challenged in different roles to make a contribution to this process. The population is willing to take action if the specific possibilities are known and can be used. In some respects, however, there are considerable gaps in information and knowledge.

Social norms determine behaviour.

Economic considerations only play a secondary role in the decisions taken by people when completing their daily shopping, making purchases and executing investments. The first step is a (product) choice that is strongly influenced by social norms. It is therefore often decisive whether something is socially accepted or even in vogue. Only then does the question of cost arise. For example, if e-bikes are considered “cool”, the willingness to buy this type of bike grows, even if the costs are high. This social assessment and classification plays an important role in the transformation of the energy system. And it can be utilised to advance the transformation process. Turning meaningful energy-efficient behavioural patterns into a trend therefore represents a promising and often underused strategy.

A broadly financed energy supply enjoys high credibility.

Consumers have a considerable interest in co-financing renewable energy for self-sufficiency. Protected by compensatory feed-in remuneration (KEV) and supported by local and regional energy suppliers, companies or organisations such as energy cooperatives bundle this fragmented financing. A high degree of identification with the structures close to the user proves to be a key factor. This results in a high level of acceptance for local and regional energy measures and investment in renewable energy infrastructure. From this perspective, the approximately 700 existing local and regional energy suppliers represent an important basis for the further transformation of the energy system. They enjoy a high degree of support and credibility for innovative measures and infrastructure investment, even if they are made abroad.

Need for re-regulation and enhanced implementation

Energy-relevant legislation, which covers much more than energy legislation in the narrower sense, is still insufficiently geared towards the energy system of the future. In some areas, therefore, this slows down the implementation of promising technical solutions. The lack of coordination between the various political and administrative sectors and the state levels in the implementation of legal mandates also decelerates the transformation. Cities and municipalities, in particular, would also have the power to advance the transformation more actively. They have a wide range of information-related, financial and regulatory intervention options at their disposal.

Legislation does not support the transformation of the energy system to the necessary extent.

The current energy regime is characterised by the coexistence of the various energy sources and by an energy distribution logic based on a mono-directional supply chain (supply – distribution – use). The transformation of the energy system fundamentally changes this situation. In order to offset the fluctuations in the provision of renewable energy, it is necessary to overcome the separation of the various energy sources by means of sector coupling – specifically, for example, in decentralised multi-energy hub systems (DMES). The increasing importance of prosumers – stakeholders who not only use energy, but also provide it on a decentralised basis – is completely changing the current distribution logic. The present energy legislation, which has a strong sectoral orientation, does not do justice to these new dynamics. It makes it more difficult or even impossible to use various available technologies and to link technologies and energy sources. In many areas, it slows down the good will that exists here to drive forward the transformation of the energy system. The past shows that every energy regime needs its own specific regulatory framework conditions. Ongoing revision work on energy legislation is capable of bringing about some of the necessary adjustments. But only careful re-regulation that goes beyond the energy legislation will create the necessary room for manoeuvre in which technological potential can be realised.

The energy system of the future requires more flexibility.

The higher share of solar and wind energy in the energy system of the future will lead to more marked fluctuations in the energy supply. An agile load management system should offset these fluctuations – this will entail great technical challenges in the control system. In addition, more flexibility must be created in the energy system – in terms of space, time and the energy mix. With respect to space, the necessary flexibility can be ensured via efficient distribution grids. The planned expansion of the Swiss electricity distribution grid is therefore necessary and must be implemented accordingly. There is no need for expansion that goes beyond this. Temporal flexibility is created by storage solutions of various types – reservoirs, batteries, compressed air reservoirs, etc. The linking of the various energy sources enables flexibility with regard to the energy mix, for example with the production of hydrogen or synthesised methane using electricity from solar or wind power plants. The greater flexibility of the energy system not only requires technical solutions, but also regulatory ones. The structure of grid charges represents partly insurmountable economic obstacles for sector coupling. Regulatory adjustments can create the necessary room for manoeuvre.

The transformation of the energy system requires greater coordination among state actors.

In Switzerland’s federal system, all levels of government deal with energy-policy tasks relating to Energy Strategy 2050. These relate to different implementation areas at the individual levels. However, energy policy activities are not sufficiently coordinated either horizontally or vertically. The increased coordination of these activities and implementation practices has considerable potential to make the transformation of the energy system more effective and thus faster.

Cities and municipalities have considerable room for manoeuvre for an active energy policy.

Cities and municipalities as well as municipal associations and regions have a great deal of room for manoeuvre to help shape and advance the transformation of the energy system – in terms of planning, organisation and communication. The scope of the municipalities goes far beyond the implementation of the energy legislation. Within the framework of usage planning, they define the planning framework, which, for example, makes possible the realisation of building-integrated photovoltaics, decentralised multi-energy hub systems (DMES) or wind turbines. As (co-)owners of local energy supply companies, they can support the introduction of “smart meters” or help to increase production capacity for renewable energy sources. In doing so, they can rely on a high level of acceptance for state ownership of the energy supply. Cities and municipalities also play a key role in the transport sector and have many competences. For example, they can help to make the distribution of goods more environmentally friendly or convert public buses to renewable energy. Thanks to their proximity to the population, cities and municipalities are predestined to make innovations in the energy sector accessible to them or to motivate the population with information and educational activities to participate in the transformation. They can also support initiatives of local associations and organisations that promote energy-saving behaviour through innovative practices. The “Energy City” and “Energy Region” programmes supported by the federal government enable an exchange of experiences and provide management instruments for the planning, implementation and measurement of a successful communal or regional energy policy.


Research can very well provide answers to individual questions and develop specific solutions. However, this can also result in conflicts of interest between the individual approaches. It is not up to the researchers to carry out the necessary social balancing of interests. Rather, this is a matter for politicians and the electorate.

The recommendations developed below therefore represent an intermediate step on the way from research to implementation. They are essentially based on the results of the individual research projects and the thematic syntheses. As part of workshops, they were discussed and evaluated with various stakeholder groups and reconciled in line with their experience.

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Résumé of the National Research Programme “Energy”

Suggested citation
Balthasar, A., Schalcher, H.R. (2020): Research for Switzerland’s energy future. Résumé of the National Research Programme “Energy”.
Ed: Steering Committees of the National Research Programmes “Energy Turnaround” (NRP 70) and “Managing Energy Consumption” (NRP 71), Swiss National Science Foundation, Bern.

DOI: 10.46446/publication_nrp70_nrp71.2020.1.en

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence.