All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Return to the land of hope (A photo essay on Germany)

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Freiburg, Germany: this is what environmentally friendly can look like.

I went to Germany to relax and visit friends.  I was on holidays, not on a fact-finding mission.  Still, one has to be blind not to notice what’s going on there – and what Canada could be like if we paid some attention.

For instance, who in their right mind would use a Volkswagen 2-litre engine to heat a home?  Uncle Detlev, that’s who.

Detlev with his new toy: a volkswagen cogen heat and electricity system for home use

Detlev is quite proud of his new acquisition.  Before, he used heating oil, which is costly – and dirty.  He wanted to shift to natural gas.  But why get a regular furnace when you can also make electricity, and get paid for it?  He contracted with the local utility.  Now when heat is needed, the engine starts (it’s surprisingly quiet) and the hot water that, in a car, would be cooled by the radiator, is used for heating.  Meanwhile, the engine powers an electrical generator that feeds into the grid.  All of this is controlled remotely – so it’s worry-free (hey, it’s German engineering!).  And Detlev gets a substantial check from the electric company. Technically, this is called cogeneration; but only in Germany is it available to home owners.

Sure, it uses natural gas, so it’s not carbon neutral.  But it displaces the electricity that would otherwise be produced by coal fired generators, so that’s an improvement.  And the gas?  A large part is now produced by digesting farm waste and garbage.  Indeed, everywhere are ads reminding the public to put their banana peels in the Bio-Müll, the green bins for food garbage that produce the biogas for the system.

Detlev has always been fond of nifty technology (he’s had solar hot water collectors on his roof for twenty years), but his neighbour maybe less so.  So instead of installing a cogen system, the neighbour went for the simpler solution to saving money: insulate the house.  Except that here, again, people do things differently.

Dinah, my partner, noticed that the neighbour’s house has a new colour.  But it’s a brick house!  But you don’t change brick like you do vinyl siding.  Surely you don’t paint brick?  Something doesn’t look right.

The house on the right has been re-insulated: a new layer of bricks and thermal foam over the old yellow brick. The other house is the “before” version.

But it is, indeed, new brick.  Built around the old brick, with an insulating layer in between.  And new thermal windows – with industrial strength insulating shutters, for good measure.  Like I said, the Germans don’t mess around.  After that was explained to me, I started seeing the technique used all over the place, especially in apartment buildings.  Why tear down a building when you can improve the envelope – why, by adding a new envelope!

And solar electricity – it’s everywhere.  You don’t need a compass in Germany – just look where the solar collectors point to find the South direction.  In Baden-Würtenberg, the sunniest state in Germany, you can’t escape them.  Homeowners, farmers, municipalities – they all have them.  While I was there, on May 26, solar electricity beat all records: for the first time, more than half of all electricity produced was solar. Over half!  And no wonder: solar panels are everywhere.  Even in northern, cloudier Schleswig-Holstein, you find on buildings and in fields – there was a particularly nice field I saw where articulated panels were tracking the last kilowatt of the sunset, with windmills in the background.

Solar collectors on an appartment block, Hamburg

And you see windmills everywhere, too, particularly in the north.  It makes a nice balance: on stormy days, when there’s no sun to generate electricity, windmills are spinning like mad.

Tracking solar collectors nearly vertical at sunset, windmills behind, near Kiel











In Canada district heating is often viewed with suspicion.  In Germany they are very common, but you normally don’t see them unless you look for them.  A district heating system uses a central, efficient power plant to heat a whole development.  You get a much better bang for your fuel buck.

A small district heating in Hoisbuttel…

…feeding heat into the local appartment blocks

You don’t usually notice them unless they are of the scale of this system in Munich that serves a whole neighbourhood.  This one uses natural gas, but it has a companion in the north end of the city that incinerates garbage for its fuel.  Talk about free energy!

Now that`s district heating! In Munich.

Put it all together and you get neighbourhoods like Vauban, in the city of Freiburg.  Vauban was developed on an old army base, and the objective was to create a community with a small environmental footprint.  So what you get is a bunch of low-rise well-insulated apartments, festooned with solar collectors, laced with bicycle paths and tramway lines.  District heating (what little is needed) uses waste grapeseed oil as biofuel, and generates electricity too.  And special attention was paid to building materials: the old base buildings were recycled where possible, and toxic plastics like vinyl (PVC) were shunned.  More commuting trips are made by bike than by cars, and same goes for transit.

Vauban: appartment block, solar cells, bikes, taken from the tramway tracks

Before anyone thinks I’m describing Germany as an ecological utopia, allow me to show how reality intrudes.  Certainly not everything is rosy in Germany.  In Vauban most everyone has a car and parks it wherever they can, despite the best intentions of the developers to make Vauban as car-free as possible (don’t get between Germans and their Audis…). Social tensions have been reported – some aspects of community management have been likened to bad condo strata council nightmares.  And the economy isn’t exactly doing great in Germany these days, just like everywhere in Europe.  There have been layoffs, and the feebates (the subsidies for solar energy) have been reduced.  And, of course, energy, whether car fuel or electric power, is already pretty expensive.

But – and here’s the key lesson for Canadians – the Germans seem to have a unique way to deal with crises.  Everywhere else, during the downturn, governments have let companies fail, unless they’re behemoths like automakers or banks.  Not in Germany, where the government recognized the importance of saving jobs; accordingly they created the Kurzarbeit (short work week) system.  Basically this is a clever implementation of work-sharing and part-time work.  The net result was that German workers had to tighten their belts, but everybody was still able to pay their mortgages – a fairer system of sharing the pain, if you will, than anywhere else.

Likewise for the feebates system.  Feebates guarantee the price that electrical companies pay homeowners who install solar collectors, and act as a subsidy while insuring that an investment in solar collectors is not a gamble.  This is why the darn things are all over the place.  The introduction of feebates created an instant demand for collectors, nurturing an  industry that now accounts for numerous good technical jobs.  Elsewhere (such as the US, alas), during hard times, a program like that would be dismantled – pissing off homeowners, but more importantly dealing a death blow to solar manufacturers.  This was actually considered by the federal government, but, in good German fashion, saner minds prevailed; feebates have been curtailed, not eliminated, and jobs and investment in high tech mostly preserved.  On-again off-again government support has plagued the alternative energy industry in North America, but the Germans have somehow managed to sidestep that trap.

Air quality in Freiburg: no hiding anything here.

I can’t figure out what it is about the Germans, but I noticed something else that doesn’t exist here: a wealth of information about pretty much anything that matters, including the environment.  In the middle of Freiburg, for instance, is a large panel that gives info about local air quality in real time.  But none of this silly “good, fair, bad” index we have here.  Germans aren’t afraid of science, so actual concentrations of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, etc, are all given, in micrograms per cubic metre.  And bookstores and magazine shops – and there are many! – stock popular magazines with titles such as “Ecological renovations”, “Warmth and energy”, or “Efficient houses”.  There are also magazines with the German equivalent of Paris Hilton on the cover – but at least that isn’t the only choice.

Souvenir magazines (now if I could read German…)

And, yes, Germans complain and dislike their government, like everyone else, and treat announcements with a healthy skepticism.  But defeatism, and widespread belief in conspiracy theories are nowhere near as common as here.  Maybe it’s just the people I talked to.  But maybe the local mentality, and belief in the importance of education, is what makes the difference.  Who knows.

Our friends the Neumanns bought a house with a roof that faces the wrong way, so no solar collectors for them.  Like many others in their neighbourhood, they insulated the house and replaced the windows as soon as they could, and now their energy bill is 30% lower.  When we were staying there Bettina made soft boiled eggs for us in a gadget that struck me as utterly German: a dedicated egg cooker.  It’s basically an enclosed steamer that purports to use much less energy than boiling water in a pot on the stove.  Is it really worth it?  I mean, it’s not cheap, there is energy invested in its manufacture.  Maybe a life-cycle analysis would show that it’s an energy drain for a family that eats fewer than a dozen eggs a week – I don’t know.  But what I love about it is this: it shows that people are willing to try ways to save energy, goofy or not.  And are learning what works, in the process.

An energy-efficient egg cooker…












And here’s the thing : we’re no dumber than Germans.  We just need to believe.  Germany shows there’s hope.

The happy environmental tourist


4 Responses

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  1. As a Canadian I’m discouraged as to our record on environmental decisions, climate science etc… I love what I’ve seen here. Gets my heart racing. Awesome. Tyvm


    June 29, 2012 at 11:51 pm

  2. […] to spur Wente’s own imagination), but it isn’t such a stretch to imagine a better life.  From Germany to Australia, and throughout the world, there are countless examples of different ways of doing […]

  3. […] like his solar collector or the VW cogen system that heats his home (I wrote about it before here).   Wish I could say the same about our own Canadian grads; we do them a disservice by not […]

  4. […] systems have become fairly popular (an example of such a system for a small home can be seen here), since the government provides incentives for them while discouraging the installation of […]

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