Zermatt’s Green-tinted Glasses
Famous for its ban on internal combustion vehicles, Zermatt has long been committed to the growth of environmentally-sustainable practices of all kinds. A refreshing exception for a ski station.
In the 1970s, when the rest of the world was fully focused on the growth of the automobile, Zermatt decided to focus on electric cars, a choice sceptics were quick to denounce. But for the station, the choice was largely tied to the goal of ensuring tourism would thrive, while limiting the potential negative impacts of the industry on this beautiful, narrow valley.
When authorities realized there were not many electric car options on the market, they decided to invest in local design and invention. Almost half a century later, Reinhold Julen (at Jumbo Garage) and his colleagues Stefan and Bruno Imboden are responsible for the production of these vehicles, developed in conjunction with their work as mechanics. It was an enormous challenge to develop vehicles like a small pickup truck with a tipping trailer, or a fuel transporter, that would meet both the technical and legal requirements outlined by the village. It was also expensive: the vehicles produced in Zermatt cost between 65,000 and 120,000 francs, not including the batteries. Built out of aluminium, they are incredibly rust-resistant and have an impressive life span of 30 to 40 years. Their designs were almost exported to New York City as a potential replacement for the city’s existing fleet of 12,000 taxis, but the project was eventually abandoned because the Zermatt vehicles don’t reach high enough speeds. They’re limited to 20 km/hour maximum, the perfect speed for navigating Zermatt’s small village streets, but unfortunately not fast enough for America’s megalopolis “city that never sleeps.” Today, some 500 perfectly silent electric vehicles are allowed to circulate in the ski station, 40 of which are taxis. All other vehicles must be parked in Täsch and riders must take the 12-minute train to Zermatt which runs three times an hour. From the train station, visitors must walk to their accommodation, take a bus, an electric taxi, or (if they’re lucky) climb aboard one of the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof’s two horse-drawn carriages.
Horses and recycled plastic
Article three of the commune’s bylaws explicitly states that pedestrians always have the right of way in Zermatt. Even the latest modifications, agreed upon in September 2019 between the commune and the local transportation company Alpin Cargo, state that in the afternoons, any package deliveries on Bahnhofstrasse can only be delivered by stagecoach.
But vehicles are not the only point of concern for local authorities. 100% of wastewater is collected and treated, trash is collected and recycled, and the use of hydropower is encouraged (currently 60% of the station’s energy is hydropower-derived). Eager to set the example, the commune recently adopted a new paving mix that includes recycled plastic. A first in Switzerland, although others are likely to follow suit as this new, more flexible asphalt blend is highly resistant to the extreme temperature fluctuations that take place between winter and summer. In Zermatt, just about everyone is onboard with the commune’s green initiatives. Numerous hotels have undergone eco-conscious renovations (including the local youth hostel), which, slowly but surely, are making a difference. The Zermatt Marathon has made a public commitment to sustainable development and the village also hosts the annual Zermatt Summit, which welcomes around 150 business leaders who have openly committed to promoting global business models that meet our world’s ecologically-conscious demands.
A sustainability test for Zermatt’s ski domain
It’s not easy to develop a sustainable ski area. And yet in Zermatt, such plans have long been underway: a dedicated working group has been tackling the challenge since its founding by the Zermatt lift operating company (Bergbahnen) in 2002. One of the first large-scale projects, finished in 2009, was to certify the Matterhorn glacial paradise’s restaurant as Minergie-P. This goal ensured construction was done in a way that would significantly reduce the building’s energy consumption. The building has since won Swiss and European awards for its solar panels, which provide enough energy to meet 100% of the building’s energy needs. The building even houses its own microbiological sewage-treatment plant, allowing wastewater treatment directly onsite. These achievements are all the more impressive when one takes the building’s 3,883 m altitude into consideration- it’s a true model of its kind. A second solar installation was commissioned in Trockener Steg in 2010. And more recently, this base station for the new T3 cable car (which takes passengers to the Matterhorn glacier paradise) was outfitted with 877 m2 of solar panels that generate 157,200 KWh each year. All this despite the difficult meteorological conditions of the winter months, which present numerous technical challenges. The Swiss Alpine Club faced similar challenges when they committed to two flagship projects over the course of a decade: the complete renovation of the Monte Rosa alpine hut (2,883 m), the first mountain refuge to be labelled Minergie-P in 2009, followed by the Hörnli mountain hut (3,260 m) at the base of the Matterhorn in 2015. Project guidelines included eliminating the use of diesel, integrating solar energy, and treating and reusing wastewater. Managing Zermatt’s ski domain, which is energy intensive by definition, is more problematic. Each year, the Zermatt lift operating company’s 68 vehicles and engines consume 1 million litres of diesel fuel. To minimize their impact, the company has started using “eco speed” fuel, which is more expensive but which reduces fine particle emissions by 13% and carbon monoxide emissions by 11%. Infrastructure cables, which have to be regularly changed, are upcycled for bridge construction in Asia. Any defunct infrastructure is carefully dismantled and the impacted area is ecologically restored. Additionally, local authorities have designated six of the ten local forests as protected sites, creating “quiet zones” (with an exception for freeriders, of course) so that flora and fauna can thrive. Here going green is not revolutionary. Zermatt’s green policy is one of small steps, which when taken day by day, contribute to change on massive levels and shape a future that’s highly-conscious of the environmental issues at stake.