Southern Swiss region rejects a plan to fast-track big solar parks on Alpine mountainsides

GENEVA (AP) — Voters in a southern Swiss region on Sunday rejected a plan to allow large solar parks on their sun-baked Alpine mountainsides as part of the federal government’s push to develop renewable energy sources.

The referendum in the Valais canton centered on economic and environmental interests at a time of high and rising concerns about climate change. The canton wrote on its official website that 53.94% voted against the proposal. Turnout was 35.72%.

The vote was a noteworthy test of public opinion. “Not-in-my-backyard”-style opposition to the plan over a presumed blight on bucolic Swiss mountain vistas had made for some unusual political allies in the Alpine country.

The rejection doesn't torpedo solar parks entirely if the private sector wants to develop them. But the “no” did set back the region, seen as one of the sunniest and most apt for solar parks in Switzerland, against others like central Bern Oberland or eastern Graubünden vying for generous federal funding for such projects. At stake is up to 60% of financing for big solar parks.

Proponents had said Switzerland benefits from hydropower — its main source of energy — mostly in the summer, and high-altitude solar parks situated above the typical cloud cover would provide a steady, renewable-energy alternative in the winter, when the country needs to import electricity. They said that federal funding would have sped up development of solar power.

Opposition to the plan had seen some environmental groups align with Switzerland's conservative populist party. They had said solar parks would be an industrial eyesore on pristine Swiss mountains and argued that outfitting more buildings and homes in towns and cities — closer to where the energy would be used — is preferable.

“Through its giant dams, Valais has already given a large share of its electricity to the country,” the local chapter of the Swiss People's Party said on its website. “Adding another environmental degradation to this first one is unacceptable.”

“Ransacking our Alps for the benefit of greedy foreign operators and their no-less-greedy local affiliates can only be an evil enterprise and be to our detriment,” it added.

Valais lawmakers and officials had been urging a “yes” vote on the proposal, which asked voters to agree to a decree — which the regional council passed 87-41 in February — authorizing construction of big solar parks that can produce 10 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year.

The federal energy department estimates that about 40 to 50 proposals for large solar parks have been made across the country.

Overall, Swiss federal authorities have set a target of 2 billion GWh in new solar energy under legislation promoting development of solar energy, adopted in September 2022. Some areas, like nature reserves, are excluded from possible development.

With concerns about climate change and their much-vaunted glaciers in mind, Swiss lawmakers have also already approved a plan that requires Switzerland to achieve “net-zero” emissions by 2050. It also set aside more than 3 billion Swiss francs (about $3.4 billion) to help wean companies and homeowners off fossil fuels.