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.

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