Electric tram in Montreux around 1890.
Electric tram in Montreux around 1890. Swiss National Museum

Electrification 2.0

In Switzerland, as elsewhere, climate change is forcing a rapid switch to renewable energies. The trend is called ‘electric’ and its advent harks back to the age of electrification, which in Switzerland occurred very early on, at the end of 19th century. Are there parallels to that era? Are we currently experiencing Electrification 2.0?

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.

Way back in 1879, the owner of the Hotel Engadin Kulm in St Moritz – later renamed Badrutt’s Palace – astounded everyone with a ground-breaking innovation: instead of gas lamps, electric light bulbs provided constant, pleasant light throughout the hotel. It was a sensation, and a strong selling point for the deluxe hotel. Electricity was a symbol of progress. The triumphant advance of electricity wasn’t limited to light bulbs; the new energy source was also essential for mobility and industry. Where coal-powered steam engines were heavy and expensive, the new electric motors were small and cheap, and cleared the way for an unprecedented boom, because now smaller factories and workshops could also afford these power units.
Cars, horses and (electric) trams jostle for space on the Bahnhofplatz in Zurich, around 1930.
Cars, horses and (electric) trams jostle for space on the Bahnhofplatz in Zurich, around 1930. Swiss National Museum
The rail system also benefited, with the smaller railways and trams taking the lead. By 1914, 62% of the country’s narrow-gauge railway network was running on electricity. Between 1880 and 1920 Switzerland experienced a veritable boom in mountain railways with scores of cogwheel and funicular railways appearing, more and more of them powered by electricity.
Railcar No 2 of the Viznau-Rigi Railway dating from 1937, the year the railway was electrified, photographed around 1990.
Railcar No 2 of the Viznau-Rigi Railway dating from 1937, the year the railway was electrified, photographed around 1990. ETH Library
Electric multiple unit BCFe 4/4, No 18 of the Centovalli Railway passes the parish church of Tegna on 24 August 1925.
Electric multiple unit BCFe 4/4, No 18 of the Centovalli Railway passes the parish church of Tegna on 24 August 1925. Swiss Museum of Transport
The railway network was also converted to electricity at a very early stage. In 1913 just 7% of the country’s standard-gauge lines were electrified, but by 1928 this proportion was 55%; in 1933 the figure had reached 66%, and by 1939 93% of Switzerland’s rail sector was powered by electricity. A similar trend was seen in stoves, ovens and washing machines.
On the Zurich Seebach-Wettingen test track, the company Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon (MFO) used the Ce 4/4 II locomotive to test electrical operation with single-phase alternating current.
On the Zurich Seebach-Wettingen test track, the company Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon (MFO) used the Ce 4/4 II locomotive to test electrical operation with single-phase alternating current. Swiss Museum of Transport
There was a specific reason for the fast pace of electrification in everyday life in Switzerland: our country had no native deposits of coal, which for a long time was the most important source of energy. We were heavily dependent on imports from Germany and France, and the two world wars showed just how vulnerable and dependent Switzerland was. While coal increasingly fell out of use after World War II, the consumption of petroleum increased exponentially – this in turn had to do with the growth of private transport, i.e. the car, and with the oil-fired heating systems that replaced coal. Between 1950 and 1960 the number of cars in Switzerland tripled.
Car at a petrol station, between 1950 and 1960.
Car at a petrol station, between 1950 and 1960. Swiss National Museum
And it is in precisely these two areas – mobility and heating – that we’re seeing big changes now. Electric vehicles are fast becoming a fact of life. More often than not, new buildings are heated with heat pumps, and solar panels – in technical jargon photovoltaic (PV) cells – that produce electricity are an increasingly common sight on rooftops. Are we currently experiencing ‘Electrification 2.0’? Yes, we are, says Urs Muntwyler. After initially spending some time running an engineering firm, Muntwyler has been a professor of photovoltaics at Bern University of Applied Sciences in Burgdorf for 11 years. Urs Muntwyler is one of the pioneers in solar energy. He was one of the founders of the Tour de Sol, which in the 1980s held rallies every summer demonstrating what electric vehicles could do. What was on show back then were prototypes built by idealistic creative enthusiasts. Electric vehicles as an everyday sight on Switzerland’s roads? What was the unlikely fantasy of a handful of eco-dreamers in the 1980s has now become reality. The car industry is pinning its hopes on electricity. The European Union aims to ban petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles from 2035, and the changeover is likely to accelerate in the next few years.
Solar-powered vehicle built and driven by Wolfgang Schleich. Schleich and this vehicle took third place at the first Tour de Sol in 1985.
Solar-powered vehicle built and driven by Wolfgang Schleich. Schleich and this vehicle took third place at the first Tour de Sol in 1985. Swiss National Museum
Participants in the Tour de Sol on 27 June 1985.
Participants in the Tour de Sol on 27 June 1985. ETH Library
Muntwyler explains the political background: in the country’s Energy Strategy 2050, which the Swiss people adopted in a 2017 referendum, the top priority was replacing the nation’s five nuclear power plants. The Energy Perspectives 2050+ proposal has gone a step further; the objective is now to find alternatives to fossil fuels, including primarily motor fuels and heating oil, but also gas, which is relatively environmentally friendly. Back then, as now, there was pressure on Switzerland. When our country first went electric, the aim was to reduce our dependence on coal. And it’s the same today. If we don’t want to be dependent on foreign electricity imports, something has to be done here in Switzerland. Cogeneration plants could help in the short term, of course, but gas is also a fossil fuel and produces CO2. The accelerated expansion of photovoltaic installations will provide a remedy. Today, photovoltaic systems already generate many times the amount of electricity predicted 10 years ago; on the other hand, however, we are at virtually nil in the wind energy and geothermal sectors.
During the Second World War, when fuel was rationed, there was a flourishing electric vehicle sector. This photo of an electrically powered commercial vehicle was taken in October 1941 at an exhibition of alternative products.
During the Second World War, when fuel was rationed, there was a flourishing electric vehicle sector. This photo of an electrically powered commercial vehicle was taken in October 1941 at an exhibition of alternative products. Swiss National Museum
But there is a problem to be overcome. It’s not enough to fit a house with solar cells and a heat pump if the energy generated immediately dissipates due to poor insulation. In the coming years, the renovation and remediation of older houses will become a major focus. In terms of energy, we are on the brink of an epoch-making change. A look back at the past could help here. At the beginning of the 20th century, Switzerland pushed forward very quickly with electrification. And as a country, we benefited – clean energy thanks to hydropower electricity. With this experience behind us, it should be easy to repeat the success of that era, says Urs Muntwyler, even if we are now no longer pioneers and there are some constraints on our options. The reason is simple: once a technology has been introduced and has matured, it can easily be used to make money.
A pressure tube being hauled up the mountain for the construction of the hydropower plant at Ackersand, Valais, around 1922.
A pressure tube being hauled up the mountain for the construction of the hydropower plant at Ackersand, Valais, around 1922. Swiss National Museum
Construction of the Grande Dixence dam between 1905 and 1961.
Construction of the Grande Dixence dam between 1905 and 1961. Swiss National Museum

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).