Published: March 17, 2017

Pioneers in riding the wind

Europe's highest wind farm was recently completed on the summit of Mt. Gries in Valais at an elevation of 2,500 meters above sea level. Can such heavy loads be carried to the top of a mountain? Only a few years ago, people said it was impossible, but SwissWinds did not let that discourage them.

Martin Senn, the founder and entrepreneur behind SwissWinds, looks up at the rotating blades and says, “Several times, we almost had to go back to the drawing board. Just prior to construction of the first pilot generator in 2011, our chosen supplier pulled out because they doubted our ability to transport the generator up the mountain.”A new producer was found in record time, and building started two months later at an altitude of 2,500 meters above sea level.

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In the lead-up, they had several hectic weeks of meticulous planning. “You can’t suddenly stop in the middle of the road with a truck carrying a 35-meter-long rotor blade and say, ‘I’ll never make it around this hairpin curve,’” says Senn dryly. A special vehicle that could transport the rotor blades up the mountain did not exist – so SwissWinds had one built. Tunnels had to be blocked off, and village streets had to be measured. In some cases, only a few centimeters decided whether the convoy totaling 11 trucks could get through at all.

The company also had to deal with some financial bottlenecks. “Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. jumped in at the right moment, helping us with a loan when the project was at risk of falling apart. We are extremely thankful that Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. believed in us,” says Martin Senn today. SwissWinds Development GmbH was founded in 2008 as a start-up company at the Swiss Research Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Gallen. The ten-man company specializes in wind generators in Alpine regions. Their goal is to turn rural areas that depend on subsidies into self-sufficient, energy-producing regions. SwissWinds made a strategic decision in choosing where to set up shop: a location where the mountains are steep and the winds blow briskly – near Sion, in Valais.

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Location and communication are the key

A project begins long before the logistics of execution. Choosing appropriate locations and gaining acceptance among the population are the keys to success. Martin Senn has a clear strategy for this: “We talk to residents and go through the entire democratic process. The people can only be won over if the location makes sense. We would never plan a project in an unspoiled landscape. We look for suitable locations that already offer the necessary infrastructure,” he says.

Griessee has been used to produce hydroelectric power for decad es now, and the transmission towers that conduct the electricity to the valley have already been built. It remains unclear how much power the new wind farm will provide. That is because the three new wind generators added since the pilot turbine was built each have rotor blades 45 meters long, providing a much larger surface area than the pilot generator. SwissWinds expects to generate approximately ten gigawatt hours of electricity per year, which can supply 2,850 homes with electricity. Martin Senn looks up again at the four turbines, which blend amazingly well into the barren landscape, and says, “The federal government’s Energy Strategy 2050 is the foundation for projects like this. We have built something for the future here.”

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