Continuous-flow electrolysers allow CO2 reduction at industrially relevant rates, but long-term operation is still challenging. One reason for this is the formation of precipitates in the porous cathode from the alkaline electrolyte and the CO2 feed. Here we show that while precipitate formation is detrimental for the long-term stability, the presence of alkali metal cations at the cathode improves performance. To overcome this contradiction, we develop an operando activation and regeneration process, where the cathode of a zero-gap electrolyser cell is periodically infused with alkali cation-containing solutions. This enables deionized water-fed electrolysers to operate at a C2 reduction rate matching those using alkaline electrolytes (CO partial current density of 420 ± 50 mA cm−2 for over 200 hours). We deconvolute the complex effects of activation and validate the concept with five different electrolytes and three different commercial membranes. Finally, we demonstrate the scalability of this approach on a multicell electrolyser stack, with an active area of 100 cm2 per cell.