Saturday, June 20, 2009

Future-Proofing Urban Energy: Germany

In an interesting bit of synchronisity today, both the Victoria Times Colonist in Canada and the Times of India run stories today about local energy generation in Germany towns and cities. The centre of the two stories couldn't be much more different: Freiburg is a city of 200,000 that has been winning prizes and attracting attention since the early 1990s for its environmental efforts, Freimat on the other hand is a lesser known cluster of agricultural villages of 4,300 people in the Black Forest. Both generate an impressive amount of power from solar or wind power, often generating a surplus that they can sell back to the grid. The result is both the self-sufficiency and low-transmission losses of locally produced power, a decreased reliance on imported carbon-heavy energy, and a financial profit for those involved.

The Freiamt difference, and what has got it into the papers, is that the region has not only achieved total energy self-sufficiency, but has a net energy surplus. By pooling their money local residents purchased first a series of wind turbines, a array of solar panels which is distributed across rooves in the area and now a series of biogas digesters that both process agricultural waste and generate energy.

Support from local citizens is part of the equation that has made these successes possible. In Frieburg it began with opposition to a proposed nuclear power plant close to the city. In Freimat it was local farmers looking for another way to make ends meet. But the other crucial component is the support these local groups got from Germany's federal energy laws. The national "feed-in tariff" not only make it possible for small renewable energy producers to feed energy into the grid, but also guarantees them a premium price for their juice. The tariff went in in 2004 and since then enough solar has gone up on houses and business to replace 6 conventional power plants ( 3,000Mw).

Newsweek quips that: "Freiamt is no hippie commune trying to shut itself off from the world." Maybe that still needs to be said, but the idea of towns and cities that produce as well as consume is loosing some of its old cultural associations. In both the developed and developing world local energy generation can do a lot to tie the crucial knot between more livable and more sustainable cities.