Energiewende

I spent this week at the penultimate meeting of the Transatlantic Urban Climate Dialogue (TUCD) in Germany, over and over hearing the term energiewende. Some of our hosts translated this as “energy change”, demonstrating characteristic German modesty. If I bought a Tesla Roadster, installed a solar array on the roof of my home to power it, ever after laughing at the price per litre posted at the local petrol station, and then referred to my accomplishment as changing a tire, it would be a similar understatement. Energiewende is no mere change. It is a revolution.

Visible signs of energiewende abound. Solar panels are a common sight on roofs of homes, factories, and institutions – the Free University of Berlin has several hundred kilowatts-worth of photovoltaics atop many buildings erected or annexed during the Cold War era when the city was hemmed in on all sides by the repressive and utterly democracy-free German Democratic Republic. As our train glided across the countryside at 200 kilometres per hour (120 mph) on the way from Berlin to Essen in the Ruhr valley region, we frequently squinted through the rain dotted windows to see farms of wind turbines rising above the landscape, sleek blades silently rotating with elegance and simplicity. From a hilltop in the Ruhr Valley city of Bottrop, a region once synonymous with coal mining, steel production, and air pollution, the silhouettes of massive power plants are visible on the horizon, their gargantuan stacks belching steam and carbon dioxide no longer, mute relics of a largely bygone carbon economy.

Energiewende makes itself felt in other, more subtle ways. Bathroom faucets often have no manual taps, but sensors that only dispense water when you present your hands – no absent-minded soul will ever leave the water running as they exit. Step off the hotel elevator onto your floor, and the hallway almost instantly lights up, activated by motion sensors that ensure all is dark when no one is there to benefit from the light. Step into your hotel room, and you will find all electricity extinguished – until you slip your access card into a slot on the wall by the door. On entering a Canadian hotel room, by contrast, you would find the lights blazing, as they would have been since the cleaner finished up many hours before. (This card slot has an added practical benefit of making sure I never misplace my room key.)

More subtle is the revolutionary way the room is heated. The hotel has no furnace. Hot water is piped into the building from a plant some distance away, a plant which takes waste heat from industry and puts it to work once more. (More on the idea of District Energy, or DE, in my previous post.) Alternatively, in places not yet served by the District Energy network, buildings are served by micro-CHP (Combined Heat and Power) units. As the name suggests, these devices provide both warmth and electricity. DE and CHP are both largely invisible, their components hidden away in basements or buried under pavement.

Finally, and least conspicuous of all, are the elements of the building envelope – energy-efficient windows, insulation, weatherstripping, and air exchange systems – which together help to make European buildings half as energy intensive as their North American counterparts. Our hosts in the city of Bottrop spoke of a number of housing projects which are “net positive”, meaning that the buildings produce more energy than they use. Some such projects are targeted at members of society on the lowest rung of the economic ladder – low-income earners and beneficiaries of social assistance. These people stand to be hardest hit by rising energy prices, and so stand to benefit the most from a dwelling that receives cheques rather than bills from the local utility.

When I think about my home in Ontario, I realize that the province has really missed the boat with its Green Energy Act. So much of the focus is on green energy generation – wind, solar, and biogas. There is an energy conservation component, but it is the poor cousin. The Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program has more than its fair share of flaws, but it stands head and shoulders above the SaveOnEnergy program.

Coal and oil are becoming ever more scarce and hence ever more expensive, and our environment cannot support their continued use. We need to replace all of our dirty energy generation systems with clean ones, make no mistake. This will be a hard hill to climb. But it will be far easier if the hill is shorter. At the same time as a revolution in green energy generation, North America needs a revolution in energy efficiency. District energy systems, combined heat and power, and building envelope improvements are all critical to shrinking the hill.

Our German TUCD hosts often spoke of everything they have yet to accomplish. They haven’t solved every problem – far from it. But they have made incredible progress. They have developed the technologies, the businesses, the public programs, and the social structures to make it happen. Through TUCD, they have been showing us how – we simply needed to ask.

In Germany, I’ve seen the hill. I’ve seen the way the German people are shrinking the hill at the same time as they are climbing it. And I am completely confident that North Americans can follow their lead.

We need our own energiewende. Our German friends are showing us the way.

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7 thoughts on “Energiewende”

  1. Great post Alex! Your Tesla roadster analogy made me want to explore Ontario’s electric energy efficiency and capacity factor with a transportation analogy also. In Ontario we are driving a moving van to go get groceries, and wonder why it is so expensive, uncomfortable, slow, and difficult to steer.

    I was reading a post on the OSPE site about time of use meters, energy efficiency, and where to point our moving van next. Of course their analysis is as yours is, let’s get more efficient and embrace renewable generation. One other concept pointed to in the OSPE article identified Ontario’s capacity factor being about 10% less than neighbouring New York state. Our moving van is empty a lot of the time.

    A post about dispatchable distributed generation and an exploration of system reasons for Ontario low energy factor and how we could put our wealth of Niagara water power and Orange zone wind power to work might be enlightening.

    The fact that we in Ontario are that much less efficient does present the opportunities of using electricity more effectively. Unfortunately political double speak like the “clean energy benefit” that says the more you use the more $$ you save makes the saveonEnergy program makes me think that Donald Duck is driving the moving van to the grocery store for more beer.

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  2. Great comments Alex – spot on. Guelph has a great story to tell and even a brighter future with all that the City is doing as it works to reduce its energy use and CO2 impact. Clearly what the Germans are doing with everything on the table makes incredible sense for all of us.

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  3. Wonderful article Alex, so poignant & filled with a ‘poke in the eye’ perspective that induces feedback – much of it with a sardonic humour. It is interesting you comment on a ‘user card’ for electrical service in hotels – Cuba has been using this method for many years. I confess, most people visiting don’t remove the card during their stay as they want the A/C on nearly full time. However, if we take this idea one step further & employ the ‘user card’ with respect to ‘user fees’ we may see a scenario where people truly begin to use less if they are charged more to waste energy.
    In reference to Steve’s comment, the Gov’t is continuing to bumble thru’ more & more layers of bureaucracy in a vain attempt to get end users to pay for every layer of bureaucrat. Hence, the Tesla analogy at the top of Alex’s post is very accurate. What people need to do is take every opportunity to turn energy efficiencies to their own personal & private benefit. Commercial entities must unfortunately go it alone & begin to do the same, not waiting for the SaveOnEnergy program to fund a project. The reason obviously is that by the time Gov’t intervenes, they will have embraced every potential option possible before deciding on the ‘right one’.
    That’s how they keep the Corporate wheel turning – profits are more valuable than the overall good to the end user. However, once we have realized that it is BigCorp that truly runs the program, we can engage BigCorp to do what they do best – streamline & cutting the waste req’d to get the job done. Unfortunately, the Gov’t might be the first & best target.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Peter. I like your idea of direct energy charge-back to hotel guests. They do it every time you pick up the telephone in your room (unless it’s room-to-room – and I’m not even sure about that in all cases). And regarding ways to improve the economics of energy projects without the need for capital G Government involvement, Guelph is working on a method in collaboration with an initiative called CHEERIO. Stay tuned – exciting stuff lies ahead.

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