Uncle Giacomo’s alpine hydro-electric power station

An investment in micro-hydro power generation 40 years ago now provides total energy independence and is virtually CO2-free

In 1974, my wife’s uncle Giacomo – an electrician – decided that the house where the family lived and farmed in the summer, on the high alp above Poschiavo in south eastern Switzerland, needed some energy.

So he asked the handful of neighbors in the tiny settlement of Vedaschon whether they would be interested in joining his scheme through a one-off payment to build the turbine and free electricity for life.  Whatever their thought processes were (he’s a confidence trickster, dreamer etc) they all declined to contribute to Uncle Giacomo’s Hydro-Electric Power Station project.  But he decided to go ahead anyway, as he was sure the size and location of the settlement would mean that a grid connection was unlikely in the coming decades.

Nearly 40 years later, in September last year, I was given a conducted tour of the summer house and pastures, marveled at the wonderful view down the valley to Italy, and inspected the power station with its six kilowatt, 3×380/220volt capacity.

Giacomo, now 84 years-old, showed me the stream which, at 125 meters long above the turbine, produces 12 atmospheres of potential energy. He then explained an that he had also installed a special device that ‘untwists’ the water before it goes into a blue box housing the turbine and pointed at the business-end of the power station:  a Brown Boveri generator converting the hydro power into electricity.

There’s a sort of ‘clutch’ that suspends energy production by shutting a flap and redirects the flow of water away from the turbine intake and down the original bed of the stream.  He tends to switch off the power station when the snow comes and it becomes difficult or impossible to reach the house by car and he only pays occasional visits there on foot with snow shoes.

I was amazed (especially as I had burnt my hand on the radiator in Giacomo’s kitchen) that all of the electricity required to heat the electric radiators and hot water and power the lights and fridge come from inside this quietly whirring concrete box the size of a small car, some 100 meters from the house.

In Switzerland 100 years ago there were about 7,000 hydro-powered mills, many geared to turn rotating mechanical equipment like looms, spinning mills, woodworking saws and lathes, while some generated electricity.  By the 1990s there were very few left as cheap hydro power from large-scale developments became available via the grid.  But now the Swiss federal government is encouraging micro-hydro power generation, has mechanisms for direct and indirect funding and is keen to explain how developers can get cash for feeding-in the power to the grid.

The mountain Swiss are highly resilient and self-sufficient people and although Giacomo’s investment might have seemed risky in the mid-‘70s, it now gives him total energy independence and is virtually CO2-free.  He says his pioneering power station doesn’t need maintenance and that he spent 59,000 francs to build it.

His investment amortized years ago – well in time for him to watch his neighbors installing solar panels on their homes.

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About the author

Adam Roscoe

I am the Head of Sustainability Affairs at ABB. In a previous life I trained as a journalist and worked as one for eight years. My interests outside work include cycling, cooking, current affairs, history, Daft Punk and writing.
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