Sustainable Switzerland

This small country is doing big things for sustainable energy and efforts to counteract climate change

Switzerland, a country known for its chocolate, cheese, bank accounts and clocks, also demonstrates quite a knack for supporting environmental protection. This small, landlocked country generates a seemingly endless number of businesses, associations, academic initiatives and other enterprises focused on making use of resources in a bio-friendly manner for the benefit of the global community.

Perhaps the fact that two-thirds of Switzerland is covered with forests, lakes and mountains has led its citizens to pay particular attention to natural resources. Or, maybe Switzerland's need to import most natural resources (the only indigenous natural resource is hydropower) has led to a greater appreciation of the environment's importance. The country's stable economy and high standard of living, along with a national focus on education, have certainly factored into its position toward environmental protection.

Whatever the causes and influences, Switzerland has proven to be a fertile ground for the generation of endeavors that support environmental sustainability. Not surprisingly, many of these enterprises consider reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, therefore, limiting climate change, as a major goal. Successfully helping to control climate change is, of course, a goal that can benefit more than just this small European country.

A Closer Look at Switzerland
Switzerland is divided into separate territorial districts called cantons, each with its own constitution, legislature, government and courts. There are twenty-three cantons, three of which are divided into half-cantons for historical reasons. The country is also separated into three main linguistic and cultural regions, which correlate to the surrounding countries of France, Germany and Italy.

For a country with such various divisions, the Swiss seem to be unequivocally unified in supporting the environment. Switzerland claims to be one of the first countries to adopt strong environmental laws and the Swiss Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape (SAEFL), the county's federal agency for environmental protection, continues that tradition.

The SAEFL also makes a clear effort to foster the growth of new environmentally sustainable technologies. The agency allocates three to four million Swiss francs annually to support the development of pilot demonstration plants and other efforts required to bring these technologies to market. Additional funds to support research and development projects come from the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI), part of the Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology.

Further exemplifying the Swiss dedication to environmental support, the new Swiss Federal Constitution, accepted by vote on April 18, 1999, specifically states the country "...shall strive to establish a durable equilibrium between nature, and, in particular, its capacity to renew itself, and its use by man" (Swiss Federal Constitution, Article 73).

Greenhouse Gases
Many studies show that pollution from GHGs, such as carbon dioxide (CO2),

is causing a gradual rise in temperatures around the globe. In fact, a recent article published in the December 5, 2003 issue of Science (vol. 302, pg. 1792-1723) concludes that there is "no doubt" that human activities are to blame for the world's climatic changes. The authors, Thomas Karl of the National Climatic Data Center and Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, insist that without changes, a 3.1 degree to 8.9 degree Fahrenheit increase can be expected by the end of this century.

The Swiss didn't need to wait for this study to be aware of the GHG pollution problem. In fact, many Swiss companies and initiatives have been working to lower CO2 emissions for years.

Turning Organic Waste into Fuel
One such company is Kompogas, which has grown into a world-known business since its initial 1991 trial phase that was financially supported by the Swiss Federation and the canton of Zurich. Kompogas offers an innovative way to recycle organic waste and turn it into not just certified organic compost, but also CO2-neutral fuel, gas, electric power and heat.

Organic waste includes yard waste, such as grass clippings, and kitchen waste from such various sources as fruits, vegetables, cheese, bread, coffee grounds and meat, along with household paper, pet droppings (including cat litter) and other trash produced daily in many households. According to Kompogas estimates, more then one-third of all household waste is organic, which means a large amount of the total waste sent to landfills and incinerators is organic material. If organic waste could be disposed of in a different manner, it could potentially lessen the waste quantity sent to landfills and incinerators by one third. This lowered volume could effectively lower costs at disposal facilities, as well as lowering the energy needed to dispose of waste at these facilities.

With the Kompogas system, participants can do exactly that -- dispose of organic waste separately from other wastes. Instead of throwing organic waste in with other trash, people and companies in areas with a Kompogas facility collect biogenous waste in separate containers similar to other recycle bins that might be used for newspapers or glass. The bins are collected by Kompogas and taken to the Kompogas plant where any extraneous inorganic material is removed. The remaining material is then loaded into an enclosed reactor where an anaerobic fermentation process takes place over a 15- to 20-day period. The reactor is kept at 55 degrees to 60 degrees Celsius while microorganisms transform the organic matter into compost and biogas.

Some of the resulting biogas is converted into electrical and thermal energy to help run the Kompogas plant, ensuring self-sufficient operation. The Kompogas plant can feed any surplus energy into the public power grid. The biogas can also be converted and upgraded to natural gas standards, which Kompogas can feed into the natural gas network or used to fuel vehicles that run on compressed natural gas (CNG). Statistically, one metric ton of organic waste produces 130 cubic meters of biogas, which corresponds to about 70 litres of gasoline.

When running on CNG, CNG-fueled vehicles produce significantly cleaner emissions with 25 percent less CO2 than vehicles that run on gasoline. When using Kompogas, vehicles produce an amount of CO2 equal to the amount needed by the plants that eventually become biogenous waste. This makes for a CO2-neutral fuel.

Currently in the United States there are not many CNG-fueled vehicles, nor are there Kompogas-fueling locations to make use of this Swiss technology. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, 85,000 CNG vehicles were on U.S. roads in 2002. Many of these vehicles are public transport vehicles; EPA's 2002 calculations reported that one in every five transit buses was CNG fueled. But Europe offers many more options for vehicles that run on natural gas. Kompogas is taking advantage of CNG's relative popularity with specific Kompogas pumps, which are currently in place within Switzerland, Germany and England.

Not only are Kompogas pumps located outside of Switzerland, Kompogas plants can now be found in Germany, Austria and Japan. In 2003, there was a total of 18 Kompogas facilities in operation worldwide. The availability of a newer, compact and modular system ensures Kompogas' continued expansion outside of its home country as it spreads the use of this environmentally friendly technology.

Deep Heat Mining Project
Another Swiss enterprise working on sustainable energy endeavors is Geothermal Explorers Ltd., based in Basel. This company's project makes use of the Earth's natural heat to produce a reliable, CO2-free, sustainable energy source.

Taking into account the entire volume of the planet, 99 percent of the world is hotter than 1,000 degrees Celsius. Geothermal Explorers' technology will make use of this heat to supply energy and heat for surrounding communities. The heat is extracted via geothermal energy supply lines that bore 6 kilometers into the Earth's crust, a depth which is actually a mere scratch on the Earth's surface. The process requires a very small footprint and does not need any ground-level storage capacity for the energy -- it is all stored underground at the source.

In order to harvest the energy, preexisting closed fractures in hot-dry rocks located deep within the Earth's crust are opened through hydraulic injection in locations deemed acceptable for the procedure. By boring holes for multiple lines, a subsurface heat exchanger can be created in which water can be circulated through the fractures. Because the fractures already existed, and due to the relatively small size of the boreholes, Geothermal Explorers insists that there is no dangerous damage to the Earth's crust, and that there are no perceptible changes at the surface.

As well as other projects, Geothermal Explorers is currently working on a pilot plant in Basel. The monitoring well has been completed and production is scheduled to continue in 2004. When completed, the project experts expect the plant to supply 100,000 megawatts (MW) of thermal power per year to the district heating grid and an annual total of 20,000 MW of electrical power to the power grid.

Since no combustion is involved in the deep heat mining project, the process creates CO2-free, sustainable energy. But unlike other CO2-free energy sources, such as solar, hydro and wind, geothermal energy can supply a consistent flow of energy. No matter what the time of day, season or weather conditions, geothermal energy remains constant.

Depending upon the success of the pilot plant, Geothermal Explorers plans to create 50 sites across Switzerland, eventually providing 33 percent of the overall power production in the country.

Sustainable Energy Business Coalition
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is based in Geneva, but this international coalition of 170 companies doesn't limit itself to Switzerland. WBCSD member companies have joined together "to provide business leadership as a catalyst for change toward sustainable development and to promote the role of eco-efficiency, innovation and corporate responsibility" around the globe. Members come from more than 35 different countries and 20 major industrial sectors, all dedicated to sustainable development through economic growth, ecological balance and social progress.

The WBCSD participates in policy development and contributes to sustainable endeavors in both developing countries and countries in transition. The council focuses on demonstrating "business progress in environmental and resource management and corporate social responsibility and to share leading-edge practices among our members."

Along with various other sectors, such as the forest products industry, mining and the cement industry, WBCSD focuses efforts on limiting climate change.

The council concentrates on establishing business-related facts on energy and climate, formulating business contribution, developing tools to address energy problems and contributing to new policy frameworks. In this vein, WBCSD established the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative in 1998, which is committed to forming internationally accepted accounting and reporting standards for greenhouse gas emissions from companies. It also works with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the International Emissions Trading Association.

A Scratch in the Surface
The three companies above are, of course, only a glimpse at a few Swiss companies whose efforts are helping to reduce GHG pollution. To discuss all of the companies with similar goals, not to mention all the companies focused on different aspects of sustainability, would take quite a bit more space. But perhaps this introduction to Switzerland's vast efforts at environmental protection could help to add environmental efforts to the long list of Swiss global contributions.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Dana Corbin is editor of Water & Wastewater Products