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German City Emerges as a World Class Energy-Saver

Neal Peirce / May 28 2009

For Release Sunday, May 31, 2009
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce FREIBURG — Tucked into a sunny corner of southwestern Germany, this old university town was best known until the 1970s for its massive cathedral dome, its tie to the Black Forest, and its craft of intricately carved cuckoo clocks.

Who would have thought then that early 21st century Freiburg could claim to be a world-class eco-city, leading in solar and wind power, energy-conserving home construction, rain-water management, public transit and carless neighborhood development?

Blame, if you will, authorities of the regional (state) government of Baden-Wuerttenberg. In 1975 they announced they’d build a nuclear power plant near Freiburg. No choice, they decreed, the power was needed for growth, and nuclear power was the smart modern choice.

The government had failed to reckon with local opposition — not just university faculty and students, but denizens of all ages, as well as local farmers, residents of nearby small towns. They mobilized around the construction site, tore down perimeter fences, used church bells to warn when the police were coming.

Even after the plant was cancelled, they stuck together, agreeing it wasn’t enough to say what they opposed — they had to explore where they would get their future electricity, power, heat. Would it be solar, or wind, or geothermal? Could it happen with no nuclear power, with radically less oil and coal?

It was an open debate. Professors came to the town plaza to discuss arrays of energy strategies. Special research institutes were founded — among them an EcoInstitute to look into such issues as reduced household consumption through energy-efficient construction and appliances. Also founded in Freiburg: the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, now Europe’s largest solar research energy body with a 500-person staff.

A visitor is exposed to exciting solar razzle-dazzle in Freiburg today — some 1,000 solar panels on building rooftops and facades, 2,400 square meters of solar cells atop a city stadium, and a solar tower at the railway station, its mixture of glass and 240 embedded solar panels glistening in the sun.

It’s taking time for solar to satisfy more than a fraction of Freiburg’s city energy demands. But it keeps growing because of a crucial incentive — the legal right of homeowners and businesses to feed excess power back into the local power grid, at an attractive rate of return, on a multi-year basis.

Germany as a whole is following the Freiburg lead, investing billions in photovoltaic research to become one of the world leaders in solar panel production and installation.

“We do trips into the future,” says Juergen Hartwig, a founding partner of “Freiburg Futour” which explain’s Freiburg’s breakthroughs to visitors. Environmentalists like himself, he notes, are no longer scoffed at as impractical idealists who wear two sweaters in winter; today not only Germany’s “Greens” but the main political parties have come around to support solar and other energy alternatives, because they’re profitable, and because they provide the county with some 250,000 jobs.

Freiburg keeps expanding its energy saving alternatives. Town center is an expansive vehicle-free pedestrian zone, one of Germany’s first, with refreshing foot-wide fresh water canals running along the streets to provide natural cooling and add ambiance. There’s a robust, growing public transit system of electric trams and buses. The city’s advanced water systems include grassy swales to percolate rain water into the aquifer while sewage waste is collected in a biogas plant together with organic household waste for electric power generation.

But perhaps the biggest wonder is Freiburg’s Vauban district — site of post-World War II French military barracks that’s been transformed into the world’s model for a zero-street parking, totally eco-friendly neighborhood or suburb.

Solar power, streets downsized to accommodate people instead of cars, cycling paths, rain water management — Vauban has them all. Seventy percent of Vauban’s 5,000 residents don’t own an automobile at all; many sold a car to move into the neighborhood and now rely on a car-sharing scheme (like ZipCar in the United States) for excursions.

Vauban’s theme is walkability — not just auto-free walkways but a variety of stores a stroll from home. There’s a tram direct into the center of Freiburg. Residences consist of a series of handsome four-story buildings, attractively detailed with balconies — all designed to maximize energy efficiency. Free-standing homes, our American model of the four-walled house with yard around, simply aren’t permitted.

Could this be the model of future development in the United States and elsewhere? The break from our generally broad streets and minimum parking requirements is dramatic. Few American zoning laws would tolerate such a development. But the convenience, the freedom for children to wander about, the informal and livable atmosphere, provide high quality of life.

Combine that with world-standard energy efficiency — standards that may become mandatory in a post-oil, carbon-strained world — and the Vauban art of development may spread a lot more rapidly than anyone would now predict.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

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