Through the Alps sustainably with ABB

You can view this page in:

Intact natural landscapes, breathtaking panoramas and crystal-clear air: the Alps are considered one of the world’s most beautiful regions for many reasons. They are home to roughly 14 million people and a sought-after destination for millions of visitors seeking relaxation, fun and exciting adventures in the mountains, both in summer and winter. More than a century ago, ABB set itself the goal of opening new routes through the mountains. During this process, the company succeeded over and over again in uniting top technological performance with the highest standards of sustainability.

On the way

Environmentally friendly travel to the top of Europe

The railway line to the Jungfraujoch station, also known as the ‘Top of Europe’, is literally a groundbreaking ABB project. It takes forty-five minutes to travel the nine kilometers through the snow and ice covered rocky landscape that takes you to Europe's highest railway station situated at 3454 meters above sea level. The trip is rightly considered one of the world's most beautiful and spectacular train rides. The next highlight of every visit to Switzerland awaits when you reach your destination: a breathtaking view of the nearby Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch mountain peaks.

It took sixteen years to build, and the development of the Jungfrau is to this day still considered a historic, pioneering alpine construction marvel. Since tunnels were required for two thirds of the route, it was clear from the start that steam locomotives were not a viable option. So ABB began electrifying the line in 1898 – when electrical engineering was still in its infancy. And still today, more than 120 years later, technology from the house of ABB still ensures that the line is reliably supplied with electricity.

The rolling stock includes especially energy efficient systems that are able to feed braking energy back into the power grid. So the Jungfrau Railway not only contributes to boosting tourism, but equally toward sustainably managing valuable energy resources.

The railway currently carries over one million passengers to the ‘Top of Europe’ and has itself become one of Switzerland's most important tourist attractions. Thanks to a special technical feature, it is also regarded as a kind of pilgrimage site for railway fans from every corner of the world: The Jungfrau railway is one of only four rail lines worldwide operating using three-phase power. This presented ABB's engineers with a further challenge: Today, every rail car is equipped with an ultramodern traction transformer and compact inverters that convert the electricity from the catenary systems into variable frequency AC.

To ensure that this marvel of modern railway construction can continue to operate reliably even in snowy winters, ABB also developed a custom solution for clearing the high alpine railway lines: A cogwheel locomotive with a snow thrower mounted at each end, supplemented by a track clearing plow that can be raised or lowered and a powerful auxiliary blower that can be engaged as needed, has since ensured reliable operation even during winter.

Across the highest Alpine pass sustainably

When the young climate activist Greta Thunberg traveled to the World Economic Forum in 2019, she alighted from a train in Davos adorned with a huge ABB logo. The otherwise very reserved Rhaetian Railway had painted the eye-catching design on its new electrically powered Allegra railcars to pay tribute to over a century of cooperation with its technology supplier ABB.

Since the day ABB’s predecessor BBC delivered the first electric train in 1913 and later the still legendary “Krokodil” locomotives, ABB has been providing the Rhaetian Railway with electrical equipment and successive sensational innovations. The Glacier Express, or the Allegra trains that began operating in 2010 and are now also renowned around the globe, are just the latest examples.

The drive trains developed specifically for the Allegra are designed to meet the demands of the challenging route that directly traverses the rugged Graubünden landscape. At the same time, they ensure that tourists can enjoy the breathtaking journey across the Bernina Pass - a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and the highest Alpine pass for railway vehicles at 2253 meters - with a clear environmental conscience. 

The Allegra trains are a miniature power station on wheels, thanks to ABB technology. They convert the energy generated during braking into electricity and feed this bonus power back into the grid. In fact, so much energy is recovered during the descent that one of every three trains operates with carte blanche for the environment during the ascent. Moreover, the Allegras can also be used as Alpine icebreakers, as the current collectors de-ice frozen overhead lines with artificial lightning flashes.

In the heart of the Central Alps

It is massive: the Saint Gotthard Massif. Nowadays one of the most important Alpine crossings in Europe, the natural stone barrier was long considered almost insurmountable. Where once only footpaths provided a route through the high Alps, and later mail coaches navigated the steep hairpin curves of the Gotthard pass, nowadays a car tunnel and the world's longest railway tunnel pierce the Masif.

The story of the Gotthard tunnel is intimately tied to that of Europe. Spiked with myths and legends, it even talks about a pact with the devil, which local residents are said to have agreed to in the 13th century. Today‘s technologies offer a simpler solution to crossing the previously insurmountable Schöllenenschlucht gorge than the above-ground bridge that was once envisioned.

A tunnel for motorized vehicles was opened in 1882, and a railway tunnel added in 2016. And also because ABB had already provided the electrification for the former almost 140 years ago, the company was again chosen to build the ‘brawn and lungs’ of the fifty-seven kilometer railway tunnel. Dubbed ‘construction project of the century’, ABB supplied the key electrical components for the entire tunnel infrastructure power supply, as well as the ventilation system’s power distribution and control systems.


At the foot of the mountain

Electromobility Conquers the Mountains

Those arriving by car at the new funicular railway known as the Stoosbahn in Schlattli in the canton of Schwyz will find not only a spacious parking garage, but also a number of special parking spaces. The third floor parking lots have signs with a friendly invitation that reads: “Recharge here”. Just behind is a dedication and a logo with three red letters that regular electric car drivers have long associated with the most advanced charging solutions the market has yet had to offer: “ABB charging stations for a stress-free drive”.

The charging zones are equipped with ABB’s new DC wall units, developed specifically for use in shopping centers, office parking lots, hotels, car dealerships and parking garages. With a charging capacity of twenty-four kilowatts, they are the ideal compromise for anywhere batteries don't have to be charged quite as rapidly as at a highway gas station, yet are still ten times faster than charging from a conventional household socket and up to six times faster than with conventional AC wall units. At the Stoosbahn, this means that whenever skiers return from an exciting day on the slopes completely exhausted, the opposite is unquestionably true for their reliably recharged electric vehicles.

There are four of these charging zones at the base station of the world’s steepest funicular railway. From an environmental perspective, this is more than gratifying for the ecologically sensitive Alpine region. Because there are fewer public transportation links, residents of the Alps drive their cars more than average Europeans. In addition, there are tourists and day-trippers who likewise prefer to travel by car.

So experts have long considered that the only option is to switch to electric cars. In fact, the potential is huge: transportation is currently responsible for one quarter of global energy consumption and accounts for the same amount of global environmental pollution, particularly when it comes to CO2 emissions. Already today, electric vehicles emit only about half the CO2 of cars with gasoline or diesel engines. If recharged solely using green electricity, emissions can even be reduced by as much as two thirds over the vehicle’s life cycle. It is estimated that by 2025, every fourth car could already be electrically driven.  

To implement this energy turnaround on the road as quickly as possible, a ubiquitous, reliable and viable battery-recharging infrastructure is essential. ABB has been working longer and more successfully on the development of this infrastructure than any other manufacturer, and to date has already sold more than 14,000 charging stations in eighty countries.

To enable skiers, hikers, nature-lovers and tourists drawn to the mountains to experience this love for the landscape even while traveling to and from their destinations, these installations are no longer restricted to only urban areas. For instance, in 2018, ABB started to build a charging infrastructure for intra-Alpine electric transport in a public-private partnership with the Swiss municipality of Davos and the local energy utility. Since then, electric car owners in the municipality of 11,000 have had access to a charging network whose density and quality would do credit to any large city. The eight Terra 53 charging stations installed by ABB are among the most high-performance on the market, able to charge an electric vehicle’s batteries from zero to eighty percent in only twelve minutes.

What environmentally conscious residents and visitors like most is that in Davos, they are exclusively supplied with electricity from renewable sources. The power required is generated at the local hydroelectric power plant, which has also relied on ABB technology from the day it was built.

This basic electromobility infrastructure building block has been continuously expanded ever since. In 2019, visitors to the WEF were already able to travel the entire distance from Zurich airport to Davos in an environmentally sound manner. To make this possible, ABB installed thirty-one additional charging stations in Kemptthal, Heidiland, Küblis and Davos, including fifteen Terra HP models, the highest performance car charging stations available worldwide. The project was conducted under the auspices of IONITY, a joint venture charging infrastructure project of leading carmakers.

Beyond the mountains, ABB's commitment extends from Europe to China, Japan and the United States, where the company was recently named preferred supplier for Electrify America, the biggest electric vehicle infrastructure project to date.

In addition to charging stations, the electrification specialist will also supply several components that consumers normally don't even notice, but are no less important for the construction and expansion of a sustainable infrastructure. Since normal low-voltage distribution networks normally don't have enough reserve capacity to quickly charge electric vehicles, ABB engineers have developed, among other things, compact switchgear that can connect the charging stations directly to a medium-voltage source.

Here several showpieces from ABB’s wide range of charging products are used; from compact devices for private garages to charging grids for public bus lines. Sixteen of the thirty-one charging stations that have lined the route from Zurich to Davos since spring 2019 are from the Terra 50 series, the best-selling fifty kilowatt charging solution in Europe and North America. It is even used in the Jaguar I-Pace e-Trophy racing series, of which ABB is the official charging partner. The Terra 54 can charge average car batteries to eighty percent in only twelve minutes.

Even faster is an innovation with which ABB amazed German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Hanover Fair 2018. This top model bears the initials HP - for high power - behind the brand name Terra, and quite rightly so. With a charging capacity of 350 kilowatts, the premium charging system is by far the most powerful on the market and can charge electric vehicles with both 400-volt and 800-volt batteries.

The high-performance charger is not used at the base station of the Stoosbahn funicular railway for good reason: If tourists had only the time for skiing that the Terra HP takes to charge their electric vehicles, their day of leisure would be extremely short. The steepest funicular railway in the world takes about seven minutes to reach the summit – the world’s fastest charging station takes only four to charge a battery for a range of 100 kilometers. 

Going up

Riding the world's steepest funicular railway to the summit

The track that runs from Schwyz-Schlattli up to the Stoos hiking and ski area located at 1300 meters has a gradient of over forty-seven degrees. It would be a strenuous climb on foot, and even most cars give up at far less than half this incline.

No wonder that the new Stoosbahn, which has been reliably traversing this stretch as the crow flies since 2017, has in no time at all become a magnet for countless national and international fans of mountaineering. And yet during the roughly seven-minute ride, the thrill-seeking summiteers hardly notice that they are aboard the world’s steepest funicular. Thanks to specially automated controls, the four futuristically designed cylindrical cabins remain continuously level, allowing the passengers to take in the breathtaking panorama without losing their footing.

Planning and construction of the 1.7 kilometer Alpine architectural marvel took fourteen years. The fact that it could even be built is thanks mainly to two companies that are both world leaders in their respective fields. The funicular railway market leader, Doppelmayr/Garaventa, which previously built over 15,000 funiculars for customers in ninety-six countries, received the order to build the Stoosbahn. ABB supplied the drive for the record setting ropeway. The extreme longitudinal profile, which has sections where the rise is sometimes 110 meters per 100 meters of forward travel, places enormous demands on the drive motor dynamics, the mechanics and the rope. These factors made it necessary to design and build two custom low-voltage motors rated 1.2 megawatts each for the main drive. By way of comparison, 2.4 megawatts is equivalent to that required to drive 250 escalators simultaneously.

Switzerland's fastest cable car system

ABB also played a major role in completing another technical masterpiece: Since 2014, the Urdenbahn has connected the Arosa and Lenzerheide/Parpan ski areas to form the largest contiguous ski area in Graubünden – a sensation for several reasons. For one, engineers were able to successfully design a 1682 meter suspension cable almost the thickness of a human arm to run across the Urden Valley without a single support. Secondly, the two cabins, each designed to accommodate 150 persons, travel at a speed of twelve meters per second and are able to carry up to 1700 passengers per hour from one ski area to the next in less than five minutes.

The fact that the planning stage for Switzerland's fastest cable car lasted about forty years and was accompanied by sometimes contentious debates was of course due less to technical than environmental issues. The Urdental is one of Switzerland's prettiest nature reserves and was therefore rightly placed under the strict surveillance of environmentalists at an early stage. Implementation of the project was only made possible thanks to a series of technical innovations, which ABB used to make the cableway into an exemplary solution for developing sensitive Alpine regions.

Because the existing power line was only designed to deliver 4.5 megawatts, and construction of a higher-rated incoming line was out of the question, engineers had to pay particular attention to energy efficient technology right from the start. The breakthrough was the concept of using two parallel cable cars rather than just one. Thanks to smart controls and AC drives from ABB, the two cabins can today operate independently and can even travel in the same direction during rush hour. The secret is to optimize and coordinate the energy regenerated by one cable car with respect to the power demand of the other in order to minimize overall consumption.

The ability to operate in an energy-controlled manner is achieved with electrical and energy-control systems supplied by SISAG. An enormous amount of energy is used when both cabins are going up to the mountain station at the same time. Therefore, to avoid peak loads the timetable is adjusted to the available energy, which means the cabin may depart a minute later or a fully occupied cabin travels at a slightly reduced speed. 

The crowning feature of the system is a smart grid installed at the Arosa Hörnli summit station. This smart grid compiles all of the energy flows, from the cable car and ventilation systems to the snowmaking systems, and automatically controls the power distributed to optimize flow and maximize energy efficiency. If necessary, it can even briefly reduce the speed of one of the cable cars to free up power for other loads.

The cable car system, which cost around twenty million Swiss francs, thus serves as a blueprint for smart networking of various loads and power sources and in many aspects, as a beacon for the future development of mountain regions. 

On the way up to the Zugspitze

Germany's most spectacular mountain railway project to date was started up on December 21, 2017 in Bavaria, only a few days after the Stoosbahn. The new Zugspitze aerial tramway sets three world records at once: It features the world's tallest steel support at 127 meters, the greatest total height difference between stations of 1950 meters and in addition bridges the world's longest free cable span, a distance of 3213 meters.

Here too, the construction project was executed in congenial collaboration by the two world market leaders ABB and Doppelmayr, as well as Frey AG Stans. Even for Doppelmayr/Garaventa Group, which in addition to having supplied countless ropeways throughout the world, along with inner-city cableway solutions from London to Lisbon and La Paz in Bolivia, nine of nine new lifts for the 2022 Olympics Games to be held in Beijing, construction of the roughly 4.5 kilometer line was quite a challenge. With a gradient of up to 104 percent, the new aerial tramway on Germany's highest mountain is almost as steep as the Stoosbahn, and some sections had to be erected over chasms 1000 meters deep.

The drive solution specifications were no less challenging. The new tramway must operate continuously and flawlessly year-round in all types of weather – even during required maintenance. This is made possible by two 800 kilowatt three-phase AC motors and drives from ABB located at the base station, together with another 280 kilowatt drive for reliable emergency operation and an almost two megawatt emergency power supply that can be used to operate the cable car even during a total blackout.

This all-round solution provides the new Zugspitze aerial tramway with over three times as much power as the old Eibsee aerial tramway and enables it to carry 580 passengers per hour to the summit, three times as many as before. Once again ABB was able to contribute to enabling future generations to enjoy an unspoiled natural environment when they go on a mountain outing for relaxation and fun.

On the top

High-tech solutions for clean skiing fun

In folk songs about the preferred winter sport of the Swiss, Germans and Austrians, nothing more than “two skis and decent snow” is required for “healthy fun on the slopes”. Naturally, ABB never appears in these cabin classics, but the Swiss engineering specialist plays an important role in the production of both components.

For example, Atomic, a sporting goods manufacturer in Pongau, Austria, makes skis that not only meet the exacting standards of eight-time Overall World Cup champion Marcel Hirscher, but have long been synonymous with fun on the slopes and the delights of skiing among amateur athletes. However, today’s sophisticated high-tech products have little in common with the skis of yore. These days, each type of ski is differently structured and tailored specifically to the needs of a diverse range of target groups, from stem-turn-skiing beginners to ambitious freestylers. The type of wood, thickness and gluing of the core alone enable countless combination options, and then there is the length, thickness and tapering as well as an abundance of new versions of stylish designs.

Making these state-of-the-art skis by hand would be practically impossible today. That’s why 20 ABB robots now work efficiently together with the specialists of the ski manufacturer at Atomic’s headquarters in Altenmarkt, Salzburg, taking over riskier tasks, which they are able to perform faster and with higher precision.

This not only makes production safer, more reliable, more efficient and more affordable, but also significantly more ecologically sustainable, though the last attribute is usually overlooked in debates about automating various industries. Robots reduce energy use by optimizing motion sequences. They work with consistent precision, thereby reducing consumption of costly materials or problematic adhesives and paints. Thanks to sophisticated safety programs developed by ABB, robots work with staff members, taking over dangerous and repetitive tasks, and thus reducing the number of accidents at the factory.

Sustainable snow from the lake

Artificial snow can be used for just under half of Switzerland’s ski runs. In Austria, this figure is about 70 percent and in some regions, such as South Tirol, operators can choose to have artificial snowflakes dancing across all their pistes.

And thanks to ABB, energy and water consumption for artificial snow generation is becoming more sustainable. For example, the company supplied the motors for a large-scale snow-making system in St. Moritz in time for the FIS World Ski Championships in 2017. A man-made reservoir 10 meters deep and the size of seven soccer fields was created specifically for this purpose.

Lake water is filtered at the Lej Alv pumping station, pumped by ABB motors through a cooling tower and then through a fifty-kilometer underground water pipeline network to the snowmaking equipment. This process cuts the consumption of precious energy in half: because water no longer has to be pumped up from the valley, energy use was reduced by two gigawatt hours - sixteen percent - in the very first year of operation.

In addition, the cooling system boosted efficiency and thus the energy efficiency of the entire system. Although the 700,000-cubic-meter lake has to be emptied and refilled twice per season, concerns about the region’s water balance are unfounded. After all, the artificial snow made using the air-cooled extracted water flows back when it melts, the same as in the natural cycle.

Additional advantages that benefit both skiers and the environment are that artificial snow provides a uniform, grippy snow cover, eliminating the need for ski-run machinery and protecting the vegetation from mechanical injury caused by ski edges and snow groomers.


Clean energy feels good

Tourism and the accompanying trains, aerial cableways, snow-making systems, etc., makes it necessary to electrify the Alps around the clock. And even when the sun vanishes behind the mountains, the lights do not go out until long after the proverbial Alpine glow is gone. That’s when the action shifts from the slopes to the innumerable alpine bars in the mountain hotels and the fireplaces of the mountain cabins.

To supply the Alpine villages, together with their hotels, thermal spas and mountain cabins with electricity in the most environmentally compatible manner possible, ABB has been working since the early days of Alpine tourism on solutions that facilitate the use of the abundant hydropower available in the mountains for the production of clean electricity. The local electric power plant of the Swiss community of Davos was one of the first projects of ABB’s predecessors, BBC,  in this region, and to this day its two hydroturbines ensure that the high-altitude Alpine town of 11,000 people, including the state-of-the-art infrastructure for electric vehicles (you’ll find more information on this in the first stage of this Alpine tour), can be supplied with electricity from renewable sources.

Reliable power supply at the James Bond dam

One of the latest examples of the commitment of the Swiss electrification pioneer is the installation at one of the highest dams in Europe. Lake Vogorno is an artificial basin that has been used to generate electricity since 1965. The retaining wall of the dam operated by Verzasca SA rises 220 meters above the ground. With its arched front and the elegant lateral spillways, it is architecturally one of the most spectacular large-scale structures in the Alps.

Reason enough for Hollywood to use the dam as the setting for a number of films: none other than James Bond (in the movie “GoldenEye”) performed a daring bungee jump from the wall of the Verzasca dam. The movie was voted the best stunt film of all time, ensuring that the dam remains a mecca for adventure-seeking Alpine tourists. 

On the other hand, to energy and environmental experts, the structure is primarily an exemplary solution for a sustainable intra-alpine energy source. The 227 million kilowatt hour power station has a 105 million cubic meter reservoir and generates enough power annually to supply more than 50,000 average Swiss households. To ensure that it continues to supply electric power reliably, ABB installed a modular uninterruptible power supply system for the large-scale plant. Critical components, including oil pumps, control systems, video and IT logistics, pumps and emergency lighting can now continue to run even if there is a fault, so that the station’s power based on ecologically efficient energy remains uninterrupted.



Floating solar power system

At the Lac des Toules reservoir, roughly 300 kilometers away, ABB and energy utility Romande Energie are collaborating on a pioneering project that will take the use of renewable energy sources to a whole new level. The dam will soon not only supply electricity generated by hydropower, but also from a solar power plant. Thirty-six floating solar panels have been installed as part of a test phase, which are to produce an additional 800,000 kWh of electricity and supply up to 220 households in the region with power via ABB’s market-leading inverters, transformers and medium- and low-voltage switchgear.

This pioneering floating Alpine solar power station posed considerable design challenges. Located at an altitude of 1810 meters (5938 feet), the floating power stations must withstand winds of up to 120 km/h (75 mph), layers of ice up to 60 centimeters (24 inches) thick and a snowpack of up to 50 centimeters (20 inches). This not only makes it possible to double the use of the lake surface, feeder roads and existing power infrastructure, but also makes for an especially efficient energy yield. Because snow reflects sunlight in winter, the atmosphere at this altitude is thinner, the temperatures lower and the UV radiation higher, studies conducted to date indicate that the double-sided panels can deliver up to 50% more power than comparable systems in valley installations.

If the tests are successful, this technology is to be rolled out on a much broader basis starting in 2021. At that time, more than 1053 of these floating platforms, the size of approximately 30 soccer fields, could cover about a third of the lake and provide electricity for 6600 households.

From mountain hut to mountain hotel

To optimize the use of the energy generated using these sophisticated methods, ABB provides numerous smart home solutions at the other end of the power supply chain to ensure that visitors to the Alps can enjoy their vacations in a comfortable and environmentally compatible manner.

In the Salzburgerland region of Austria, Hotel Edelweiss offers ecologically efficient vacation accommodation thanks to smart building automation. ABB’s i-bus® KNX system connects all applications and devices, enabling everything to be controlled more easily and flexibly. Lighting systems and window blinds, as well as heating and ventilation systems, can be adjusted to the needs of individual guests and adapted to external conditions so as to optimize the building’s energy efficiency.

Skiers experience sustainability in the Alpine world in several ways simultaneously: while travelling to a resort, during the steep ascent, while skiing, and when taking in the breathtaking mountain scenery through their hotel room windows. Thanks to ABB, mountain tourism has become a uniquely green experience.