A Swiss energy company has just begun construction on what will be by far the country’s largest solar energy producer, as a rooftop project in Geneva will overtake a sun-absorbing stadium in Bern.
Bern's solar supremacy will only last a few more months. By the end of the year, a rooftop project in Geneva will dethrone a plant attached to Bern's Stade de Suisse as Switzerland's largest sun-powered generating system.
Work on the new power facility, which is co-owned by Geneva Industrial Services (GIS) and Palexpo, began this week. Once in place, the $17 million system will boast an installed generating capacity of 4.2 megawatts (MW), more than three times Bern's capacity, and enough to supply electricity to some 1,200 people.
The Palexpo/GIS project will require some 15,000 photovoltaic (PV) solar panels covering an area of 48,000 square meters, with more than twice the efficiency of the last generation built in 2005 in the Verbois area. The system, which is being erected on the roof of Palexpo's Geneva offices, will be installed by the Belgian company Derbigum. Each solar panel weighs 24 kg, which explains why the roof needed to be reinforced.
Nationwide, Switzerland's PV electricity capacity stands at approximately 30MW, just a tiny fraction of the total electricity grid capacity, estimated at roughly 20,000 MW. The country generates the vast majority of its power from nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams. Photovoltaic technology has made far more significant gains in other European countries. Germany, the area leader, currently has an installed PV capacity of nearly 17,000 MW.
GIS manager André Hurter insists the Palexpo plant will not result in steeper electricity bills for GIS customers. With the exception of some structural work, to be paid for by Palexpo, GIS will fund the entire project. Broken down, electricity from the new plant will cost roughly 38 (U.S.) cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) – a relatively good price for solar energy. "The Solar Energy and Building Physics Laboratory of EPFL in Lausanne produces photovoltaic electricity that costs from 56 to 68 U.S. cents/kWh," says Hurter.
How long will it take to make Palexpo's solar plant profitable? "About 25 years," says Hurter. "The goal of this kind of systems is to make them as profitable as possible while at the same time protecting the environment."
The project also helps boost GIS's reputation as a "green" company, an image it has been cultivating for years. This is a significant step forward for GIS, which in recent years has built a few smaller photovoltaic solar plants. The company also encourages individual Geneva residents to install photovoltaic panels on their roofs, promising to buy all of the electricity produced.
"In the Geneva area, we give top priority to photovoltaic electricity in terms of renewable energies," says GIS chairman Daniel Mouchet.
Compared to other alternatives, namely windmills, solar panels have the benefit of being discreet, particularly when they are installed on the roofs of taller buildings. For that reason, the developers do not expect the Palexpo project will stir up any controversy in Geneva.