Power in Switzerland: Computing, Hydro, and more

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

1 October 2014

Over the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to see an extraordinary amount of power here in Switzerland – but not the kind of power a lot of folks usually think about.

Instead, I had the opportunity to see some of the most impressive computing power in the world at the Swiss National Supercomputing Center (CSCS) as well as feel incredible hydro-electric power at the Grimselwelt power plant. Below are some of my reflections and photos on those two experiences.  Before jumping into those, though, let me just share some insights I gained just this week regarding Switzerland and power from a one on one meeting I had with Ulrich Spiesshofer, CEO at ABB – a world leader in power and automation technologies (and a Swiss-Swedish company that employs approx. 30,000 people in the US).

He spoke at the UN Climate Summit last week and shared this incredible metric: “The ratio of energy consumption to GDP in different markets also gives us some indication of what is possible with today’s technology: Switzerland, for example, uses four times less energy to generate $ 1000 of GDP than Russia and three times less than China.” He concluded his remarks with this inspirational comment: “We need to run the world without consuming the earth.”  AMEN! (note – you can view his whole speech here.  It starts at about 40 mins into the recording)

SO – with that in your mind and in your heart….here are my experiences with computing and hydro power:

CSCS – Dr. Thomas Schulthess hosted me – sharing with me the role that the center plays across Switzerland and then showing me the facility. It is an ETH project located in Lugano that provides the core shared computing services for entities ranging from Mateo (the weather forecasting system) to the Blue Brain (the effort to take on more deeply understanding the human brain).  The facility is stunningly designed to reduce the energy consumption that data centers typically consumed.  For example- they built a pipe all the way from Lake Lugano to cool the systems there – and have the ability to then transfer that heat back into local homes.  They also have isolated little rooms around the machines so that there’s less overall space to cool.

The individuals working there come from all across the globe – including many from the United States.


A couple of weeks after heading to Lugano, I went with my family down to Grimselwelt.  The concept that blew our minds was to think of the lakes like bathtub batteries – natural storage.  In order to generate the hydro-electric power, they essentially let the water out of the bottom of the tub.  This then goes through the turbines to generate the electricity.  In the evening, when the energy is less expensive, they pump the water back up into the lakes.  To support the business, an incredible infrastructure has built up in the area.  There are a series of hotels, several funicular railways (formerly used to bring workers up to service the dams) and many many dams.

As part of the experience, we actually drove under the lake through an incredible tunnel.  That’s where we got to see the power plant.  We also, after the plant, saw a crystal cave in the middle of the tunnel (they were tunneling and ran into the crystal cave.  They were able to preserve some of it and it’s now viewable through a plexiglass window.)  It looks like others can book this similar tour here.


Over the coming years, I look forward to seeing more of the different power sources throughout Switzerland!