Mini hydroelectric power stations: small but not to be underestimated

Alpiq EcoPower Switzerland Ltd. wants to encourage the expansion of mini hydroelectric power generation. Gerhard Danioth, managing director, firmly believes in the potential of this type of energy generation.

At the moment Gerhard Danioth is busy travelling. His task: to unearth and evaluate mini hydroelectric power stations. "It’s about the condition, output, ownership and rights", he explains. Danioth has a clear task in mind: as the managing director of Alpiq EcoPower Switzerland Ltd., founded in 2006, he intends to expand the existing portfolio of mini hydroelectric power stations. After all, the mission of the young Alpiq subsidiary is: the expansion of mini hydroelectric power generation in Switzerland. "In this country, we had over 7,000 mini hydroelectric power stations only a few decades ago", Danioth emphasises. Currently there are still 1000 power stations left.  Alpiq EcoPower is involved in an increasing number of these power stations. During its first year in business, the company acquired shares in 14 existing hydroelectric power stations. "Today we are already running 120 projects across the whole of Switzerland". One of them is the Hämmerli power station in Lenzburg (AG). The plant has been going strong for over 100 years, but is now prone to technical defects. Annual output is around 200,000 kWh. A new turbine and an increased drop height should increase annual output to more than 500,000 kWh. "We simply combine archaic generation techniques with modern technology". Remarkably, the additional energy output equals the annual energy demand of 60 households.

"Even if individual plants only generate a comparably small output, their sheer number represents a great potential", Danioth insists. Compared with wind energy and even photovoltaic power stations, mini hydroelectric power stations apparently do even better given their high efficiency rate. What’s more: "Since we are facing an energy crisis, every little helps". It seems investments are therefore paying off. On the back of cost-effective feed-in tariffs (KEV), operators receive subsidies which render operations economical. "But we also expect an increase in electricity prices." This will ensure that the figures will still add up even after KEV (25 years) have expired. “Our calculations are based on a 40-year period, in any case.

No wonder Danioth will continue evaluating new projects in Switzerland. Nevertheless, not every mini hydro-electrical power station meets the standards of Alpiq EcoPower Switzerland Ltd. Stringent environmental regulations in individual cantons, for example, can present a significant hurdle. “One of our projects in the Canton of Zurich is currently on a knife's edge". Requests for renaturation, a fish ladder, the removal of artificial barriers: "The authorities are trying to bury this small project under too many demands". Which is doubly disappointing for Danioth. Because, for him, there are not only ecological advantages. "The technology you come across is really fascinating". It seems mini hydroelectric power stations are living testimony to the Swiss industrial heritage. In his job, he has lots of unusual encounters because many plants have been operated by pioneers who have invested their whole life into this project. "Not only are the power stations special but also the people who run them."