No Smoke Signals

Thu, 29. Jun. 2017

The four profile interviews this summer explore different perspectives of innovation and sustainability in the Gstaad region. For this issue we sat down with Claude Minder, head of project management at EBL, the enterprise responsible for the central heating plants in the Saanenland. 

Interview by Guy Girardet

GstaadLife: Thank you, Mr Minder, for receiving me on behalf of GstaadLife. We're here to talk about the district heating plants in the municipalities of Saanen and Gsteig. Before we go into the details and why you consider them a good thing for the environment and the local economy, can you tell the readers of our magazine a little about the background of these district heating plants.

Claude Minder: My company – EBL – has been working in renewable energy for many years and we were happy to have the opportunity to take our expertise to this part of Switzerland and come to Saanen. This project was a major challenge since it is one of the biggest installations that we have built. Fortunately, we were able to partner with excellent local enterprises. 


What was the timeline for the installation of these plants? When were they built and put into operation? 

Saanen/Gstaad came online in 2008 and Gsteig in 2013. We are currently working on a new district heating plant for Schönried, which will be finished in the summer of next year, ready for the 2018/19 winter. A part of the existing heating plant will be connected to the new installation.


How many buildings receive heat from the district heating plants?

Totally over 300 buildings in the region are connected – about 220 to the plant in Saanen/Gstaad, about 60 in Schönried and about 30 in Gsteig. 30 to 40% of the energy goes to heating big buildings and hotels – about 15 hotels are connected.


In each of these areas, how many litres of heating oil would have been used to generate the heat that is now supplied by the heating plants?

For Saanen/Gstaad, the district heating plant supplants 3.3m litres of oil, and in Gsteig and Schönried about 0.3 and 1m m litres respectively. 


That's litres of heating oil per year?

Yes, that’s correct: litres of heating oil that would have been used per year.


What does this represent in terms of CO2 emissions?

It represents 10,000 to 12,000 tonnes of CO2.


So basically you're saying that, byinstalling and using district heating in the region, we are preventing 12,000 tonnes of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.

Yes, that’s correct.


How much energy is supplied by each district heating plant and how much power can be connected? 

Saanen produces about 30 million kWh . This corresponds to the power of 15,000 kW which is totally connected to the installation. In Schönried it’s about 11 million kWh (connected power of 5,500 kW) and Gsteig produces 3m kWh (1,500 kW of connected power). So Saanen has ten times the capacity of Gsteig.


How does this compare to the amount of energy used to heat a normal household?

The three installations have a total of 22,000 kW of connected power and the energy sold over a year is more than 40m kWh. This is the amount of energy consumed by approximately 8,000 apartments over a year. 


There has been concern from residents in Château-d’Oex about the danger of small particle emissions from district heating plants.What precautions does EBL take to ensure that harmful emissions are not released into the atmosphere?

The Canton of Bern has very strict regulations about flue gas emissions. Each of the district heating plants in Saanen, Gsteig and Schönried are equipped with special electric filtersthat keep the emissions to an absolute minimum. Furthermore, they are checked by the Canton on a regular basis.


When you drive past the Saanen heating plant, you often see smoke billowing out of the chimneys. What produces it?

People think that the emission is smoke but in fact it’s simply water vapour.


Why are these district heating plants a good solution for heating rather than oil or other sources?

Biomass district heating has three primary advantages: First, it uses carbon-neutral, renewable energy sources. Second, it produces less pollution than that produced by individual heating systems that use wood and/or oil. Third, the investment in the fuel to produce the heat is stable and remains in the region.


The district heating plants in Saanen, Gsteig and Schönried all use wood from local forests. One of the arguments in favour of biomass district heating plants (your third point above) is that it uses local resources with stable prices. How much wood is required for each plant and where is this sourced?

The Saanen district heating plant requires between 45,000 and 50,000 cubic meters of wood chips a year. On a cold day, the Saanen plant requires about 200 cubic meters. 


Some people are concerned that the use of these heating plants could lead to deforestation in the area. Could you address this issue?

Yes, it is a very important point. If you install a biomass district heating plant, you need to be certain that the forests are not depleted. We ensure that all harvested wood is fully replanted. This aspect is also strictly supervised by the Canton of Bern.


Where is the wood sourced?

From the surrounding forests of Gstaad, Gsteig and Schönried. The type of wood that can be used as fuel is, again, strictly controlled on a regular basis by the Canton of Bern. Our two main sources are 70% from forests and sawmills in the region. This includes branches and off-cuts that are normally discarded during timber production. 30% are from old wood, taken from demolished or refurbished buildings.


How are the district heating plants financed, operated and maintained?

EBL is responsible for the investment, the maintenance and the operation of each district heating plant. We invested about CHF 45m in Saanen and 4m in Gsteig. The estimated investment for Schönried is CHF 8m. So we will have invested a total of over 57m francs in these three plants. Our responsibility is to operate and maintain the plants; this includes billing our customers. We take a great deal of pride in our installations. By having control over the entire operation, we can ensure that customers receive the level of service that they require and expect.


Can you tell us about your customers? How satisfied are they about receiving heat from the district heating plants? 

I can say with certainty that our customers are very satisfied! EBL operates 50 to 60 district heating plants in Switzerland and this has been my area of responsibility for 13 to 14 years. During this time we have never lost a customer. It can sometimes be difficult to enrol a new customer in the beginning but, once they are connected, the level of satisfaction is very high.


Are you at the maximum capacity for each of these heating plants or is there still room for further expansion?

We foresee a possible 10% expansion in Saanen and 40% to 50% in Gsteig. Once the Schönried plant is completed, I believe we will be able to add another 50% there. We have just had a very significant vote where the Swiss people opted to phase out nuclear power and move more to renewable energy sources.


How do you see this affecting your business over the next 10 years?

We have been working in renewable energy for 25 years and this vote is very important for us. If you look at the total heating market in Switzerland, just 8% is currently provided by district heating. So, over the next 20 or 30 years, I believe we can expand district heating by a factor of five. It’s enormous and we have a lot of work to do to reach this target. 


I am sure many people will join me in wishing you good luck in this endeavour! Thank you, Mr Minder.



Now that there is this heat factory close to the border with canton de Vaud, we are getting fog in Rougemont when the wind blows from the East ! Thank you so much for sending us your pollution !

Add new comment



Real Estate




Saanenland representative elected to the Grand Council

Hans Schär, member of the liberal party FDP, was re-elected for a four-year term. He is the only representative of the Saanenland in the Grand Council. Politicians lament the low voter turnout of only 36.8%.