High in the Swiss Alps, a Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) student and postdoctoral fellow drilled down on some of the opportunities and obstacles facing a future with much greater reliance on renewable energy sources.

Benjamin Franta, a sixth-year applied physics Ph.D. student, and David Pastor, a postdoctoral fellow in materials science and mechanical engineering, traveled to Switzerland with a delegation of legislators, journalists, entrepreneurs, and scientists to study the Alpine nation’s determined efforts to deploy clean energy. The interdisciplinary team was organized by Swissnex Boston and Presence Switzerland and was led by Marc Pacheco, Massachusetts State Senate President pro tempore.  The group spent a week in mid-August touring Swiss energy, research, and manufacturing facilities.

Switzerland, home to 8 million people, presents a unique renewable energy case study because the nation has nearly decarbonized its electricity production, relying primarily on hydroelectric and nuclear plants to generate power, said Franta. The nation is now striving to shift electricity production away from nuclear (currently about 40 percent of the total) due to safety concerns that have mounted following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan. Policy decisions are voted upon directly by citizens in popular referenda held several times during the year, making energy choices a matter of civic engagement.  

To accomplish the renewable energy switch, Swiss leaders are focusing on a range of strategies, including reducing energy consumption in buildings, utilizing energy-saving technologies such as heat pumps, and expanding the nation’s hydroelectric capacity as well as the use of wind and solar.

Pastor was surprised by the nation’s focus on increasing solar energy research, since solar power constitutes only a small fraction of the nation’s energy use. “The Swiss study solar energy, not only for electricity generation within their own country, but also as a potential technology that could be developed and exported to other countries,” he said.

For Pastor, the trip emphasized the importance of new ideas as export commodities, as well. And while the U.S. has its own renewable energy challenges, Franta said the Swiss example shows the value of including clean energy discussions in the earliest planning phases of new construction or infrastructure projects.

“For me, it was really valuable to see how everybody in our delegation brought different questions to the table,” he said. “At the end of the day, no single discipline will implement its own solutions to the problems of renewable energy and climate change. It is going to be a consensus.”