Through the Alps sustainably with ABB

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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

Sustainably crossing the highest Alpine pass

It was almost symbolic: when the young climate activist Greta Thunberg went to the World Economic Forum in 2019, the train she alighted from at the Davos stop had a huge ABB logo on its side. The otherwise very reserved Rhaetian Railway had used this branding on its new electrically powered Allegra railcars to honor more than a century of collaboration between the two companies.

ABB has been providing the Rhaetian Railway with electrical equipment and one sensational innovation after another since its immediate predecessor BBC delivered the first electric train in 1913, and later the legendary “Krokodil” locomotives. The Glacier Express and the Allegra trains that began operating in 2010 and are now also globally renowned are only the latest examples.

The drive trains developed specifically for the Allegra are designed to meet the demands of the challenging route that traverses the rugged province of Graubünden. At the same time, they ensure that tourists can enjoy the breathtaking journey across the Bernina Pass - a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and at 2253 meters, the highest Alpine pass for rail vehicles - with a clear environmental conscience. Thanks to ABB technology, they are miniature power stations on wheels, converting the energy generated during braking into electricity and feeding this bonus energy back into the grid. So much of it is recovered during the descent that on the uphill climb, one of every three trains operates with carte blanche for the environment. Moreover, the Allegras can also be used as Alpine icebreakers, as the current collectors de-ice frozen overhead lines with artificial lightning flashes.

Environmentally friendly travel to the top of Europe

ABB managed to complete yet another groundbreaking project when it extended the rail connection to the Jungfrau summit at 4158 meters. The forty-five minute journey along nine kilometers of snow- and ice-covered cliffs is justly considered one of the most beautiful and most spectacular railway trips in the world. And at the summit, a stunning view of the nearby Eiger and Mönch peaks offers the potential highlight of the next trip to Switzerland.

The opening up of the Jungfrau is still considered a historic, pioneering Alpine construction work of art. It took sixteen years to complete. From the very beginning, it was clear that steam locomotives were not an option, as two-thirds of the route required tunnels. So in 1898, when electrical engineering was still in its infancy, ABB began to electrify the route. Today, more than one hundred and twenty years later, the company’s components continue to supply reliable power to the route and its trains.

As with the Allegra trains, extremely energy-efficient systems that can return the energy generated during braking to the power grid are used on the way the Jungfraujoch, enabling the Jungfrau Railway to contribute both to tourism and the sustainable use of precious energy resources.

Today, the railway carries over one million passengers annually to the “Top of Europe” - the highest train station in Europe at an altitude of 3454 meters - and is itself now one Switzerland’s most important tourist attractions. The fact that it also functions as a pilgrimage site for railway fans from around the globe is due to a special technical feature: the Jungfrau Railway is one of only four three-phase AC powered railway routes worldwide. This presented ABB’s engineers with a further challenge: today’s railcars have state-of-the-art traction transformers and compact power converters that convert the electric current from the overhead lines to variable frequency AC.

To keep this marvel of modern railway engineering operating continuously during winters with heavy snowfall, ABB also developed a custom traction converter solution for clearing the high-altitude Alpine track networks: Since then, a cogwheel locomotive equipped with snowblowers on both sides, with an additional track clearing plow that can be raised and lowered and a strong blower that can used when needed, has ensured uninterrupted travel even in during the coldest time of year.

In the heart of the Central Alps

Stretching high into the alpine sky, the Saint Gotthard Massif, once an insurmountable barrier between north and south, is the site of the most important mountain passes in Europe today. 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 massif.

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. Where supernatural forces were once summoned to build a bridge over the once insurmountable Schöllenen Gorge, today's technologies offer simpler solutions.

After a tunnel for motorized vehicles was opened in 1882, a railway tunnel was added in 2016. ABB provided the electrification for the former almost 140 years ago, and was nicknamed the ‘muscles and lungs’ of the 57-km 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.

Through the mountains in electric buses and electric cars

ABB has now taken its mission of providing electric power for clean and sustainable transportation to the mountain roads of the Alps. Thanks to innovative battery-charging technologies, there are now practically no limits to the use of electric buses and cars.   

For example, delegates to the 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos were able to commute quietly and absolutely emission-free from one conference site to the next using innovative electric buses, causing several sensations at once! For one, at an altitude of 1563 meters , Davos is one of the highest cities in Europe, and until last year, electric buses had never before been used in such an exposed location. Secondly, over the course of the conference week, passengers noticed that the new shuttles didn’t need to return to the garage for recharging at all during the day.

What made it all possible was an innovative ABB charging system called TOSA, which enables electric buses to be recharged by a high-power 600-kilowatt so called “Flash charge” at selected stops in just 20 seconds. Given the very short time available for charging at the bus stop, the combination between flash charging and charging at the terminal ensures that buses run all day without having to be taken out of service. The Swiss Federal Office of Energy awarded the Watt d’Or (Golden Watt) 2018 to the world’s leading provider of charging solutions for electric vehicles for good reason. TOSA makes implementation of electric public transport alternatives considerably more practical and much more affordable for communities. And each additional electric bus line significantly reduces environmental pollution: for example, CO2 emissions in Geneva, where such buses shuttle between downtown and the airport, were cut by 1,000 tons per year.

In addition to providing the bus line, the City of Davos entered into a public-private partnership with ABB and the local energy provider in 2018 and began developing a charging infrastructure for private electric vehicles. Since then, a charging grid with a density and quality that would do credit to any large city has been available for drivers of electric cars in this community of 11,000 people. The eight Terra 53 charging stations installed by ABB are among the highest performers on the market and can recharge electric car batteries from 0 to 80 percent in only twelve minutes.

And what environmentally conscious residents and visitors like best: In Davos they are powered exclusively by renewable energy. The required electric power is generated at the local hydroelectric plant, which has likewise operated using ABB technology since its construction.

This electromobility infrastructure foundation has been continuously developed and expanded ever since. In 2019, visitors to the WEF were already able to travel the entire route from Zurich Airport to Davos in an environmentally sound manner. ABB, in conjunction with IONITY, a joint venture charging infrastructure project of leading automobile manufacturers, installed 31 additional fast charging stations, in Kemptthal, Heidiland, Küblis and Davos for this purpose. Included are 15 Terra HP types, which are considered the highest performance car charging devices worldwide.

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 parking spots on the third floor have signs bearing the friendly invitation “Recharge here”. Just behind that, there is an inscription and a logo with three red letters that dedicated electric car drivers have long associated with the most advanced charging solutions the market has had to offer to date: “ABB charging stations for a stress-free drive”.

The charging stations are equipped with ABB’s new DC wallboxes, which were developed specifically for shopping centers, office parking lots, hotels, car dealerships and of course, parking garages. With a charging capacity of 24 kilowatts, they are the ideal compromise for any location where batteries don’t need to be recharged quite as rapidly as at a gas station on the highway. Still, they do their job ten times as fast as a conventional household plug and up to six times faster than at conventional AC wallboxes. This means that when exhausted skiers return from an exciting day on the Stoosbahn slopes, their reliably recharged electric vehicles can be revved up and are ready to go.

There are four such charging stations at the valley station of the steepest funicular railway in the world, which from an environmental standpoint, is wonderful news for the ecologically sensitive alpine region. Because there are fewer public transportation options, Alpine residents drive their cars more than average Europeans. Added to this are tourists and day-trippers who likewise prefer to travel by car.

This is why experts have long considered the switch to electric cars imperative, with no alternative. And in fact, the potential is enormous: road traffic is currently responsible for one quarter of global energy consumption and accounts for the same amount of global environmental pollution, particularly with regard to CO2 emissions. Today’s electric vehicles cut CO2 emissions to roughly half that of gasoline- or diesel-driven cars. When operated solely using electricity from renewable sources, pollution is reduced by as much as two thirds over the lifetime of the vehicle. According to estimates, every fourth car could be powered by an electric motor by 2025. 

To implement this energy turnaround on the roads as rapidly as possible, a reliable, practical battery-recharging infrastructure with blanket coverage is an absolute must. ABB has been working longer and more successfully on the development of this infrastructure than any other manufacturer; and has already sold more than 13,000 charging stations in eighty countries to date.

These installations are no longer restricted only to urban settings, so skiers, hikers and other tourists drawn to the mountains can experience their love of nature even while traveling to and from their destinations. In 2018, ABB laid the foundation for the electric private transportation option in the intra-Alpine region by installing no less than eight charging stations in Davos; and is successively expanding this network under the auspices of IONITY. ABB’s commitment goes beyond the Alps; from Europe to China and Japan, all the way to the United States, where the company was recently selected as the preferred vendor for Electrify America, the largest electromobility infrastructure project to date.

In addition to the charging stations, electrification specialist ABB also provides a number of components of which consumers are not usually aware, but which are no less important for the development and expansion of a sustainable infrastructure. Because normal low-voltage grids often have insufficient reserve capacity to fast charge electric vehicles, ABB engineers developed compact switchgear to directly connect the charging stations to the medium-voltage grid.

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

Even faster is an ABB innovation that astonished even German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Hannover trade show in 2018. The top model bears the initials “HP” for “High Power” behind the “Terra” brand name – and 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 equipped with either 400 or 800-volt batteries.

The high-performance charger is not used at the valley station of the funicular railway known as the Stoosbahn for good reason. If tourists had no more time for skiing than the time needed for the Terra HP to charge their electric vehicles, their leisure activity would be extremely brief: 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

Sustainable peak performance on the way to the highest summits

The railway line that takes you from Schwyz-Schlattli up to the Stoos hiking and skiing area - altitude 1300 meters - has a 47 degree pitch. On foot, this would present some difficult climbing – and even most cars give up at far less than half this gradient.

So it’s no surprise that the new funicular railway known as the Stoosbahn, which has been reliably traveling straight up and down over this route since December 2017, immediately became a major attraction for countless Swiss and international mountain fans. Adventure-seeking summiteers hardly notice during the seven-minute ride that they are on the world’s steepest funicular railway. Thanks to a special automated system that keeps the floor of the four futuristic cylindrical cabins level at all times, passengers can enjoy the breathtaking scenery with feet firmly planted.

Planning and construction of this 1.7-kilometer Alpine architectural marvel took fourteen years. That this feat could be achieved at all is thanks primarily to two companies, both global leaders in their respective fields. Having already built more than 15,000 funicular systems for customers in ninety-six countries, Doppelmayr/Garaventa, the market leader in funicular railway construction, was commissioned to build the Stoosbahn. ABB supplied the drive for the record-breaking funicular railway. The extreme elevation profile, in which up to 110 vertical meters of rise per 100 meters of forward travel occur, places immense demands on the drive motor dynamics, the mechanical systems and the cable. Two specially designed low-voltage motors rated 1.2 megawatts each were required for the main drive. By way of comparison, the total of 2.4 megawatts corresponds to enough power for 250 escalators operating simultaneously.

On the way to the top - the Zugspitze

Just a few days after the Stoosbahn opened for business, the next record-breaking Alpine project began operations in the German state of Bavaria. The new Zugspitze aerial tramway opened in January 2018 set three world records at once. Its only steel support is the world’s highest at 127 meters. Moreover, the aerial tramway successfully copes with the largest ever total height difference of 1950 meters, while also bridging the world’s longest free cable span at 3213 meters.

Here too, the installation was the result of friendly collaboration between the global two market leaders ABB and Doppelmayr as well as with Frey AG Stans. Even for the Doppelmayr/Garaventa Group, which has implemented inner-city aerial tramway solutions from London to Lisbon to La Paz in addition to numerous mountain cableways around the globe, and will build all nine of the new lift systems for the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in 2022, the construction of the 4.5 kilometer route presented a particularly complex challenge. The new aerial tramway’s gradient of up to 104 percent on Germany’s highest mountain is almost as steep as that of the Stoosbahn, and parts of it had to be built over chasms more than 1000 meters deep.

The demands placed on the drive solutions were just as tough. The new tramway has to operate continuously and flawlessly 365 days a year in all weather conditions, even during maintenance. To make it happen, the base station has two 800 kilowatt AC motors and drives made by ABB, as well as an additional 280 kilowatt drive for reliable emergency operation and an almost two-megawatt emergency power system that would enable the cable car to continue functioning even in the event of a total blackout.

The comprehensive new Zugspitze cable car solution has more than three times the power of the old Eibsee aerial tramway and can transport 580 passengers per hour - triple the former number of passengers - to the summit. Once again, ABB has helped ensure that future generations too can relax and enjoy recreational activities in an intact mountain landscape.

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. 


Sustainable mountain tourism at a glance

Whether it be hiking, trekking, skiing or just relaxing: Central Europe’s highest mountain region, the Alps, has something for everyone. Click on the different areas to find out about all the things we do so that you can enjoy stress-free Alpine experiences among the clouds.