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Today we were privileged with a bit of a lie in, until 7.40am! With our minds and bodies having rested, we were able to continue working on our presentations for the morning. At 10:45, the students and Dario were off to the train station and heading out to St. Imier. As we were walking to the tram going up to Mont Soleil; the solar and wind plantation, a smart car drove past us, which reminded me just how pro environment Switzerland is. Smart cars are more environmentally friendly than other regular cars, as they consume much less petrol per km driven as they are more compact.
We went up the extremely steep tram track and walked over to the solar plant. It was closed however, due to the very typical Swiss lunch breaks. While waiting for the plantation to open, Dario took us for a small walk around the area, where in the paddocks, we were among the cows and their dung. Then back to the main building to shelter away from the cool winds. During our wait, Macarena, Mohit, Debbie and Gao sung for us their national anthems. Before Jacquie and I were able to sing our pride away, our guide Monique Voumard had arrived.
After our ‘warm’ welcome to the Mont Soleil plantation, we went indoors to actually warm up. Monique gave us a very informative presentation about the solar plant which answered many questions I had about solar power. It was very fascinating to learn that within 20 years Mont Soleil has become a successful power plant.
The 3 goals of the plantation are:
1. Research centre
2. Development centre
3. Information and Education centre
Last year alone, Mont Soleil was visited by 16,000 people, most of which were school groups who have incorporated new energy courses into their educational programs, which I think is a very important step towards raising awareness. Mont Soleil is about the size of 3 football fields and contains 4575m2 of solar cells which produce 500kW of nominal power – which is the maximum production. It also produces 600,000kW/yr of direct current which must be converted, and if not, the direct current is used for batteries.
For solar cells to produce the most power, they must be in cool environments, obviously with maximum exposure to the sun which is 13,000,000oC. Mont Soleil is situated at an altitude of 1200m. Most solar panels are made of cells which are 0.2cm thick, which are made from Silicon. Sunrays hit electrons in the cells, which cause them to move, producing electricity in a closed circuit, some of which also contain antireflection sheets. For private solar panels on the top of roofs, the sun rays hit the cells – sending the electricity to the house into the converter and is then used internally, or sold back into a grid.
An alternative to solar power, to be able to save energy and money, there are storm water circuits which heat the water up to 80oC. It is approximately half the cost of solar cells, and works just as efficiently. Negative aspects of both solar cells and storm water circuits is that they do not produce throughout the night and the weather can also disrupt production frequently. Such disturbances as cloud cover and season; summer is the most producing and winter is the least due to shorter days and the lower positioning of the sun.
Solar cells are extremely costly to repair and are 3-4 times more expensive than basic energy; basic energy costs 20c – 1kW/hr and solar energy costs CH1.- – 1kW/hr. Although solar energy is a more expensive alternative, in the long run it definitely seems to be the more reliable energy source.
Currently, there are 4 nuclear power plants in Switzerland, however, recently, the Swiss public voted against the use of atomic energy, which will lead to the closing down of 2 power plants within the next 10 years. Therefore, before this time Monique strongly recommended that people should be investing in their own solar cells, as France had refused to sell their atomic energy to other nations and 40% of Switzerland’s power is reliant on atomic energy. If everyone had at least 1m2 solar cells on their roofs I could solve the issue of the lack of energy available for Switzerland in the near future.
Innovative projects which Mont Soleil are invested in are:
– MobiCat, which is the biggest solar catamaran in the world. It was built in 2001 and can fit 75people on board.
– Bern Stadium has lined their walls with solar cells collecting energy and selling 1,200,000kW/yr back into the grid, which is an alternative green way of earning income.
– The Sphinx in Jungfraujoch which produces 50-70% more power than in Bern Stadium, as there is no pollution up there, it is cool and the light from the snow also helps.
– Solar impulse, a solar plane with panels on its wings, the size of an A240 (70m long) with 4 engines and batteries at the back to collect the energy from the sun during the day to be able to power the plane through the night.
Today, Switzerland uses approximately 60% hydroelectric energy, 37% atomic energy and 3% renewable energy. People have the choice to buy this renewable energy, which comes as a mix of energies through the grid. It sponsors organizations such as Mont Soleil to expand their plantations to be able to produce even more green energy, which could potentially decrease the costs of renewable energy.
In the plantation there are 110 solar tables, 19 of which are 20 years old. The older solar tables have monocrystalic and alluminium rods. They are 11.5% effective, where as the newer ‘Rols Royce’ versions are 20% effective and produce 0.5volts per cell is a 225W model. These solar cells are theones used on Solar Impulse as they are a lighter type, causing the plane to only weigh 1600kg.
Surrounding the solar tables are sheep, to maintain the grass pastures, acting as biological controls so that the grass does not over grow and block the sun rays from the cells. This is an interesting and historical solution for such a natural occurance.
As Mont Soleil is also a research station, Monique showed us some experiments done by Swiss, German, American and Japanese researchers. It was really interesting to see different kinds of solar cells and how effective they are in these conditions. One of the Japanese models produced the most kW/hr of 130, as they used antireflection shields and Silicon cells. There were also other models which were flexible and Monique said that these models will become more popular in the future, as they can be fixed onto backpacks and tents etc, to be able to charge small batteries.
After our solar plant tour, we moved on to the Wind Turbine farm for our next presentation. There are 10 wind turbines, 8 of which had been recently installed over the summer, 1 by 1 each week. These turbines produce 9,000,000kW/yr and with 10-12 wind turbines, they would be able to produce 40,000,000kW/yr. The turbines are situated within a 12km stretch between the furtherest turbine to the other. This project took 9 years to develop, as opposed to the 2 years the solar plant took.
The new wind turbines are 140m tall with 45m long blades. The construction of these turbines took whole days and a crane which is 190m high and can lift 1200 tonnes. Monique explained how difficult it was to build at times, because even though descent strength winds are required for the production of energy with wind turbines, the wind and bad weather are undesired factors when trying to insert blades into the cabins.The turbine poles are broken up into four and are built on 10x10x1m2 concrete blocks, covered up again by earth for grass to be able to grow again, due to grazing horses and cows.
The head of the cabins turn to face the wind, to produce maximum energy production. This is controlled through computer programmes and on occasion manually. The cost of wind energy is 38c and as it is already alternative energy, it does not need to be converted and is ready to use. The blades turn in a clockwise direction, 28 times per minute with a requirement of 40km/hr winds for effective production. If winds are over 80km/hr, the turbines are stopped and faced against the wind, to prevent damage or breakage.
The goal for Mont Soleil natural energy plants is to sell more energy into the grids to be able to expand their farms to make even more renewable energy. Wind is a great source as it is never ending and can produce energy throughout the night, unlike solar cells. The combination of both solar cells and wind turbines are complementing to each other, as solar cells thrive mostly in the summer where the sun is stronger and more available for longer hours during the day, and wind turbines thrive during the winter when snow storms approach the alps.
Today was a very educational and eye opening experience. I absorbed as much information as possible, gaining a deeper understanding of the power of sun and wind energy. The main point which Monique emphasized was that these energies must be harnessed correctly to be able to be used for maximum production. We thanked Monique very much for her time and expertise, then we were off back to Biel for dinner and a presentation by Christopher Schwörer.
Christopher Schwörer is currenty undergoing his PhD in the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research and Institute of Plant Sciences in the University of Bern. He is studying the Holocene Climate and Vegetation Dynamics at the Treeline in the Northern Swiss Alps through Paleoecology. Christopher gave us a lecture on his studies as an overview of what he is researching. He showed us some statistical figures representing the relationships between the rise in temperature and precipitation patterns over the globe explaining that the climate is changing regardless of anthropogenic influences. However, by this stage, the climate is suppossed to be cooling, where as due to increased CO2 emissions, global warming is occuring.
Fluxuations in rainfall will cause changes in the natural environments biomes, which will lead to 3 different strategies for plants:
1. They will Migrate
2. They will Adapt
3. They will become extinct
As treelines are very sensitive to climate change, the rate and extent of change is largely unkown. For Christopher, this is what he plans to predict through 4 different methods:
1. Experimenting
2. Comparing different regions
3. Computer models
4. Studying vegetation changes in the past
As lakes act as natural archives with their distinctive sediment levels, methods to understand what changes will occur in the Alp treelines can be predicted through:
– Coring (extracting the layers of sediments through a pipe)
– Pollen/Macrofossil research (distinguishing what plants were around in what eras)
– Aquatic Organisms (identifying species in the sediment to determine temperatures)
– Charcoal (to determine forest size and human land use)
– Abiotic Proxies
I really identified and felt privileged to have Christopher give his presentation to us, what he plans to find out on this small scale, can also help determine and relate to other regions to predict treelines and thus temperatures at different altitudes in the future. I am also very interested in the biology of the alps because in Australia there is no such thing as the alps and we have seen just how beautiful they are here on this trip. As Christopher has just started his research, he does not have results as yet, but it would be very interesting to know what predictions he can make with his data.
I would like to thank Monique and Christopher for sharing their knowledge with us today, just opening our eyes a little more to the prospects of the future, to how we should be acting now and not when its too late.