International Geneva’s green transition on the ballot

Construction site near Vengeron Beach for Geneva's biggest thermal power network. (Credit: SIG/Magali Girardin)

Geneva will vote on 13 February on whether to expand its thermal power network and grant exclusivity to the canton’s power company Services Industriels de Genève (SIG). The results could prove decisive for Geneva’s plans to slash their CO2 emissions, including the organisations and institutions that make up International Geneva.

Between the Park Perle du Lac and the World Trade Organization (WTO) building, a pump draws water 45 metres deep from Lake Leman. A network of pipelines buried deep underground then routes the water towards the Nations district, cooling the various UN buildings in the area. Unlike it may seem, lake water never actually enters building pipelines. A device called a heat exchanger transfers the lake water’s thermal energy to the water running in the buildings without ever mixing the two. Lake water then flows back where it came from. This renewable energy system is now being extended to other districts through the SIG’s expansion project Genilac.

Estimated at CHF800 million, the SIG says Genilac will cut the city’s CO2 emissions by 70,000 tonnes by 2035 by replacing oil and gas-powered air conditioning and heating systems in the buildings sector, which currently accounts for half of the thermal power used in Geneva – of which over 90 per cent comes from fossil fuels, according to the canton.

UN Geneva pioneers the canton’s energy transition

In the Nations district, home to some of International Geneva’s biggest institutions, 10,000 people have been benefiting from this hydrothermal technology, long before it came into the limelight. Launched under the name Geneve-Lac-Nations (GLN), the canton’s first thermal power network has been running since 2009.

“The success of GLN, Geneva’s first network, encouraged its development and that’s why we’ve been thinking of alternative energies to fossil fuels at the start of the 2000s, when few people were interested in the energy transition,” Véronique Tanerg, spokesperson for the SIG, tells Geneva Solutions.

The move towards carbon neutrality across UN organisations was kickstarted by UN former secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon’s call to “go green” in June 2007, according to Greening the Blue, the UN’s own sustainability reporting initiative. While thinking about how to reduce their emissions, the UN of Geneva (UNOG) was approached by the Energy Office of the Canton and SIG engineers about a new project to cool its buildings.

“It was a risk, because it was a technique that had never before been rolled out in Geneva,” says Rosario De Pasquale, chief of the engineering unit at UNOG, adding that “it was still a calculated risk, as this installation was going to reduce carbon emissions regardless”.

After much convincing, many years of construction works and big investments from both UNOG and SIG, the project finally came to life. Today, aside from the Palais des Nations, other buildings in the area are connected to the system, including the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the International Labour Organization, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Curbing international Geneva’s remaining carbon footprint

The State Council of Geneva, in favour of the project, argues that the project is key for the canton’s strategy to reduce 60 per cent of its emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, and become carbon neutral by 2050.

If the bill passes, the SIG will hold the monopoly to continue developing its thermal network in Geneva, while smaller neighbourhood networks will remain open to competition. According to the SIG, buildings that connect to the 30km long network will cut CO2 emissions by 80 per cent and their energy systems will no longer emit fine particles.

While the UNOG is officially carbon neutral through a combination of green energy sources and carbon offsetting projects, in 2020 it still emitted 2166 tonnes of CO2 – about what 260 homes emit over a year.

“When we connected to GNL, carbon emission reductions were significant but not huge. That’s because UNOG already had regulations prioritising clean energies to cool our buildings,” says Gaëtan Rouault, the main engineer in charge of operations at UNOG. “However, we are now planning to heat our buildings with Genilac and that’s when we’ll have radical numbers.”

The UNOG is expecting to see a sharp drop in emissions by 2024, as part of the Palais des Nations renovations, which include installing four new heat exchangers, each the size of a small van, to heat the building with renewable energy instead of natural gas.

For the canton, renovations remain a priority to reduce the use of fossil energies, as the SIG still faces the challenge of “coordinating construction works in Geneva to lay the underground plumbing at the same time as other works,” according to Tanerg.

Some political figures have claimed that the project could send energy prices soaring. “Those who will pay will be the tenants…Are the citizens ready to participate in the energy transition?” Liberal radical (PLR) parliamentary, Adrien Genecand, said in an interview with Le Temps.

While the fate of these mega networks is still to be decided, more neighbourhoods and buildings are taking the leap. Constructions are taking place in Jonction district to connect over 90 buildings by 2025 and Geneva Airport says it is planning to reduce emissions by 5300 tons by plugging to Genilac that same year.

If the project gets the green light on Sunday, other parts of Geneva, which include NGOs and diplomatic missions, could hook themselves to the thermal network in the future and help reduce international Geneva’s carbon footprint.