Efficiency lessons from Germany

US nearly last place for efficiency.


Just days after its national soccer team became world champions, Germany won another less glamorous but important competition: It was ranked number one in energy efficiency by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The United States, meanwhile, showed even less proficiency for efficiency than for soccer. It finished a dismal 13th place out of 16 countries, beating out only Brazil, Russia and Mexico.

Somehow, I doubt that the poor ranking will bruise American pride. After all, as a nation we tend to look upon efficiency and conservation with about as much fondness as Ann Coulter has for soccer. We mistakenly conflate consuming less power with having less power, and thus see efficiency as impotence — a world of slow cars, dim lightbulbs, tepid showers and unbathed, tofu-eating wimps. We live in a land of abundance, especially those of us in the American West, so have no pressing need to make do with less. And even when we try to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, we tend to emphasize the more — more solar plants, more wind farms, more desert covered with gleaming mirrors — than on simply consuming less in the first place.

Efficiency hasn't slowed growth in Germany. Here, cranes construct hundreds of new housing units alongside a huge, new park in central Berlin. It was made possible in part by federal laws that require developers to fund green spaces. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Germany, meanwhile, is in the throes of its Energiewende — the transition away from coal and nuclear towards renewable energy sources. During the first half of 2014, nearly one-third of Germany’s electricity came from renewable sources. They’ve accomplished this, in part, by a strong feed-in-tariff policy that incentivizes the installation of rooftop solar or small- to medium-scale wind power. Often overlooked, though is the less sexy side of the Energiewende: A policy to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020 (compared to 2008 levels) and a whopping 50 percent by 2050 via higher building standards, better appliances and the like. Thus the number one ranking in energy efficiency.

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder says:
Jul 22, 2014 02:44 PM
Not quite true on Germany and coal. Post-Fukushima, it upped coal usage hugely. Now, in the long term, it may reduce coal use further. But, that may happen in part only if European countries start fracking for natural gas. Here's the coal numbers, anyway: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/[…]abdc0.html?siteedition=intl
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder says:
Jul 22, 2014 02:51 PM
I should be specific that, post-Fukushima, Merkel actually reverted to the original nuclear phase-out approved before by Schroeder and the Social Democrats. Details here. http://theenergycollective.[…]t-leading-more-coal-burning
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson says:
Jul 22, 2014 09:15 PM
Steve, yes, Germany's coal use is up from recent years, but still is 12 percent lower than in 2003. (I refer to overall coal use: lignite+hard coal) https://www.hcn.org/blogs/g[…]l-addiction-to-fossil-fuels
Jerry Nolan
Jerry Nolan says:
Jul 24, 2014 07:33 AM
Good to hear Germany is trying to use less electricity as they increase their use of coal. "Between 2011 and 2015 Germany will open 10.7 GW of new coal fired power stations. This is more new coal coal capacity than was constructed in the entire two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall." from http://theenergycollective.[…]t-leading-more-coal-burning
Robert Krantz
Robert Krantz says:
Jul 27, 2014 11:56 AM
Hi, Jonathan. Two comments:

First, can the US do better? Certainly--and we are largely on a trajectory to do that. House sizes decline, residential densities increase, and energy efficiencies improve. In an absolute sense, we already do pretty well while maintaining or improving living standards for most of us. My favorite number is 2.5--that's the number of gallons of crude oil each of us in the US uses each day, on average--and that's for everything, fuel for transportation (you, me, airlines, UPS, the Navy), feedstock for plastic and other chemical products, road paving, etc. (2013 numbers from US EIA).

Second, speaking of living standards, most of us would indeed have to make some compromises to live more like Germans. I have enjoyed summer days without AC in both Germany and Durango, but not so much in Houston.
Charles Yoder
Charles Yoder says:
Jul 28, 2014 09:51 AM
"Annual auto vehicle miles per capita: Germany, 3.9. United States, 5.7."
Surely there are some missing zeros in this factoid.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson says:
Jul 28, 2014 12:53 PM
Charles: Yes, you're right! It should be, "... miles per capita, in thousands." Now corrected. Also, I should point out that these are older figures. But Germans have consistently driven about half the number of vehicle miles as Americans, on a per capita basis.