Solar panels

Switzerland’s Bright Ideas

How many people does it take to screw in a light bulb? If it’s a renewable one powered by solar energy, it may take exactly nine.

That’s the number of experts from policy, academia, and business across the United States who convened in Switzerland in May of 2010 to take part in a tour of the country’s renewable landscape. Despite cloudy conditions, the many destinations during the weeklong trip illuminated a booming solar field, innovative electric solutions, and a committed effort to reduce carbon emissions.

The expedition was organized by ThinkSwiss-Brainstorm the Future and swissnex San Francisco with the goal of exchanging knowledge and ideas between Switzerland and North America in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Switzerland recently ranked number two in Yale’s Environmental Performance Index.

Solar Center


Led by swissnex’s Gioia Deucher and Katharina Antonietti of Presence Switzerland, the participants visited a soccer stadium in Bern that boasts the largest solar roof for a venue of its kind. In Lyss, the delegation stopped by the company headquarters of 3S Swiss Solar Systems, a manufacturer of building-integrated solar. They also met with the head of International Energy Affairs at the Federal Office of Energy and learned that renewable energy, which includes solar, makes up 18 percent of total consumption in Switzerland, where a carbon dioxide tax has been in effect since 2004.

“I was happy to be invited on a tour of Switzerland with a group of wonderful people,” said attendee Ken Zweibel, Director of the Solar Institute at the George Washington University. “The most intense part for me was to share the information, thoughts, and ideas with my colleagues and with the people we met on the trip. It really broke a lot of my expectations and my thought processes open about my specialty, which is solar energy, but also energy in general and how it fits together into our world.”

Lean and Green

After all the solar talk, it was on to Neuchâtel’s Ecoparc and later, in Lausanne, to the sustainable campus of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), which includes the new Rolex Learning Center with its automated climate control and elaborate heat-pump water system.

image-1Lausanne was the first city ever honored with a gold European Energy Award, so of course the group sought an audience with its sustainability leaders, such as Vice Mayor Jean-Yves Pidoux. In addition, they got an inside peek at the M2 automated metro system and the Tridel SA garbage incineration plant, which deals with post-recycling urban waste transported through underground tunnels to avoid stinking up the city.

“This trip has been very encouraging,” said Rhonda Mills, Program Director of Coal Demand Reduction at the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT), who also joined the study tour. “It’s been a very good experience that I can take back to the United States and prove to people that we can use technologies to benefit society and we can find the funding in order to deploy those technologies. I look forward to taking and transferring the knowledge I learned here home to the United States.”

In Zurich, the delegation spoke with officials at MINERGIE, the Swiss version of the LEED system, who explained how to best implement building standards that ensure energy efficiency.

Trip participant Henrietta Davis, Vice Mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chair of the National League of Cities Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee said of MINERGIE, “The main factor about it that I found so fascinating is that it’s been able to be in effect since the 1990s and the buildings are running at 35 percent of average US energy.”

Everything is Electrified

At the Environmental Center of the Swiss Federal Railroads, the crew discovered that (thanks to the electric railway system) Swiss trains are four times more energy efficient than cars and emit 20 times less carbon dioxide.

image-2Next stop: Emmental. Not for cheese, however, but to check out the electric bicycle company FLYER, who won the Federal Office of Energy’s prestigious Watt d’Or prize in 2009. Even its production plant resides in a MINERGIE labeled building—it’s fully solar powered and warmed with heat pumps and ground water. It wouldn’t be right to leave FLYER without a test ride, so off the group pedaled. When the hills got too steep, electric motors powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries kicked in to aid the climb.

Before the voyage was over and the travelers headed home, they convened at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) to explore the Energy Science Center and the Science City Campus. At the Institute of Dynamic Systems and Control (IDSC), they were introduced to a novel engine design called the pneumatic-hybrid engine, which replaces a battery with air pressure.

“What is really compelling for me, as a take-away from this trip, is a deeper understanding of the Swiss worldview: that it is a responsibility of the citizens to be aware of sustainability, clean energy, and personal responsibility,” said Priscilla Thompson, Energy Policy Analyst at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii and a member of the delegation. “The commitment of the Swiss government and its citizens is very inspiring and I think some of these lessons that the Swiss can teach us would be helpful to keep in mind as we plan and look at policy and implementation of technologies in the United States. This was a tremendous opportunity to open minds as well as relationships between the Swiss government and the United States.”

Now that’s a bright idea.

Read more about this trip and other light bulb moments on the study tour blog.