If Germany, Why Not Here?

For three weeks in June 1999 I participated in a German Studies Seminar along with 25 other American scholars and professionals. Sponsored by the German-American Fulbright Commission, this seminar focused on environmental protection and alternative sources of energy.

It was a tremendously informative trip that taught me great deal about Germany while also giving me a chance to meet a great set of American scholars. It also inspired me to learn more about Germany, which I subsequently did through extended visits to Berlin over the next three years.

During our fascinating three-week visit, we met with a wide range of researchers, ministry officials, members of parliament, local elected officials, representatives of public interest groups and private corporations, spokespersons for trade associations and the mass media, and ordinary citizens in Bonn, Hamburg, Wismar, Schwerin, Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, and several others smaller towns and villages in Germany and Austria.

From them we learned what Germans had been doing and hoped to do in response to the threat of global climate change and to the risk of another major nuclear accident. In part this meant we visited rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems, PV manufacturing plants, building-integrated solar installations, wind farms, a 5 Megawatt (MW) biomass-fueled cogeneration plant, the recently renovated Reichstag in Berlin, a center for environmental remediation, a new 170 MW natural gas-fired cogeneration plant, a research nuclear reactor, and a single-family house with solar collectors and a pellet heating system.

Along the way we learned that Germany had already reduced its CO2 emissions by 13 percent from 1990 to 1998 and that their goal was to increase that reduction to 25 percent by 2005. How, we wondered, had the Germans been able to make such substantial progress and were anticipating making even more while we in the United States seemed to be stuck in the 1970s, making virtually no progress at all?

The people we spoke to indicated that there were at least three key factors that helped explain Germany’s progress:

First, they had instituted a significant tax on energy, which promoted much more efficient use of energy. If I understood correctly, the gasoline tax amounted to about $3.00 per gallon. In 1998 the new governing coalition in Germany agreed to increase the tax on gasoline by 6 pfennigs per liter, on heating oil by 4 pfennigs per liter, and on natural gas by 0.32 pfennigs per kilowatt-hour (kWh). They also agreed to initiate a tax on electricity, amounting to 2 pfennigs per kWh.

Not everyone in Germany favored these taxes. Some argued that they create an artificial market, whereas others said that to let markets alone determine the price of energy is to massively under-price the actual costs of energy use by not accounting for negative externalities (costs borne by people who are not part of market transactions, and hence costs that are not reflected in market prices).

Second, they obliged electricity companies to purchase electricity from renewable energy sources (such as wind turbines) and to pay a guaranteed minimum price for the energy they purchased. (The 1990 Electricity Feed Law guaranteed that wind and solar sources would be paid 90 percent of the grid price.) Along with technological improvements, these two guarantees had had a dramatic effect on wind energy generation. Virtually no electric energy was being generated by wind turbines in 1989, but more than 3000 Megawatts of generating capacity had been installed as of 1999. In 1990, moreover, the average wind turbine was a 150 kilowatt (kW) unit; by 1997 it was 1500 kW. Similarly, wind turbines had increased in height from an average of 23 meters to 63 meters. As of 1999 over 6000 wind turbines had been installed in Germany. Wind energy generation costs had dropped by 50 percent, and availability had increased to 99 percent. And more than 15,000 people were employed in the wind energy business.

And third, Germany was supporting urban development policies and practices that encouraged compact patterns of development and facilitated greater use of non-auto modes of transportation. As discussed in my posts concerning the 1998 “Sustainable Cities Tour” and my 2003 article with Sherry Ryan, Freiburg in the southwest of Germany provides an outstanding example.

Over the preceding 20 years, Freiburg had achieved a startling shift in modal split: in 1976 60 percent of trips were made by car, 22 percent by public transit, and 18 percent by bicycle, but by 1996 only 43 percent were being made by car. Twenty eight percent were being made by public transit and 29 percent by bicycle. Much of the shift had been due to the development and expansion of the city’s high quality electric tram system.

Not all of this shift in modal split can be attributed to Freiburg’s policies. In addition to the tax on gasoline, there was a motor vehicle excise tax of $2.00 – 7.50 per ccm depending on the engine and its pollution emission rate. Moreover, autobahns were mainly restricted to routes between (not within) cities, and only a portion of the gasoline tax was being used to finance transport infrastructure. As a report by Parsons Brinckerhof put it, “The key to success in taming the automobile in Germany has been a coordinated, multifaceted strategy that has limited the intrusion of high-speed freeways into urban areas and simultaneously restricted automobile use and made it much more expensive while providing attractive, inexpensive alternatives to the auto.”

Those of us who took part in this trip wondered: if Germany could make this kind of progress towards responding to the threat of global climate change, why can’t we?

Almost as rewarding as the trip itself was the opportunity to spend three weeks with a great set of fellow scholars. I recall all of them with great fondness: Mike Heiman, Miranda Schreurs, Andy Whitford, Tom Hudspeth, Jay Rossilini, Rich Seifert, Steve Wolport, Kevin Klein, Mark Tumeo, Phil Otterness, Susan Austin, Bill Makosfke, Bill Tullar, Scott DeLong, Sharon Jones, Javad Tavokoli, Peter Brown, the late Claudia Clark, Sandra Schuh, not to mention our superb guide, Lisa Exley. If any of them read this post, I invite them to remember the night we sang our heads off in Lisa’s apartment.

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