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Know the West

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.

I happened to be hanging out on vacation in Germany’s capital city, Berlin, when the ranking was announced. It inspired me to go on a sort of scavenger hunt through the mundane, looking for subtle ways in which efficiency is integrated into the daily life of a Berliner. I also tried to determine whether these efforts might fly with Americans by asking what kind of quality of life sacrifices were made in the name of efficiency and conservation. Here are just a few of those observations (along with some interesting statistics):

Dense Living: Berlin has about the same number of people per square kilometer as Denver does per square mile, mostly because the dominant form of housing is the five- to six-story Haus with one to three apartments per floor rather than the suburban single-family home. With less distance to cross in order to get somewhere, less energy is used. But by no means does Berlin feel dense or claustrophobic — there are no Manhattan concrete canyons around here. Take a look at a map of Berlin and one of the first things you’ll notice is the proliferation of green — parks, forests, garden colonies, and plenty of space in which to breathe. And Berlin doesn’t have the type of zoning that puts residential areas in one place, and commercial in another. Pretty much everything’s multi-use, so even in the fringe neighborhoods, there’s always a market, a cafe and a place to get a beer within an easy walk from the front door.

Average new home size, square feet: Germany, 1,173. United States, 2,163.

Compact Living: After Australia, America has the biggest average home size by far. Germany’s nowhere near the bottom, but the average house — most likely an apartment — is far smaller than the American McMansion. That means less space to heat and light, and in some cases more compact appliances. You won’t see the gargantuan American energy-hog refrigerators around here, and you don’t need to hoard all that food anyway (see Dense Living). Cars are compact, too (and gas costs more than $5 per gallon).

Berliners use bikes for almost everything, including as mail delivery trucks. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Annual per capita electricity use, in kilowatt-hours: Germany, 7,081. United States, 13,246.

Carless Living: This is the biggie. First off, let’s be clear, Germans love their cars. These are the folks who make Mercedes, Volkswagens, Audis and BMWs. They have the Autobahns, where you think 90 mph feels pretty speedy until you see the headlights flashing in your rearview mirror and you barely have time to move over before the Mercedes sedan flies by you as if you’re standing still. For the most part, though, the car is not the primary means of getting around. For that, you’ve got an incredible public transportation system, made up of buses, trams, S-Bahns, U-Bahns, regional trains and intercity trains. Dedicated bike lanes, many of them protected, make cycling safer and easier: Everyone from little kids to the elderly rides around the city for fun and utility. There are even bicycle inner-tube vending machines here and there for when you flat. Once again, density and mixed-use development allows one to walk to the market, cafe, or what have you. And as far as quality of life goes: I’d say a life on a bike, walking down a sidewalk, or reading the paper or a novel on the U-Bahn is far better than one spent in a car, stuck in traffic. No?

Annual road sector gasoline use per capita (in kilograms of oil equivalent): Germany, 222. United States, 1,106.

Annual auto vehicle miles per capita, in thousands: Germany, 3.9. United States, 5.7.

Now that's efficiency! A self-contained sausage grill and dispenser in Berlin's Alexanderplatz. While Germans consume less energy and water than Americans, they are still big consumers of retail goods, beer and sausages, of course. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Number of autos per capita: Germany, .51. United States, .48.

The Little, Everyday Things: There's so much more that is hardly noticeable. Nearly all lightbulbs are halogen, fluorescent or LED. Though a bit uncomfortable during this heatwave, there's virtually no air-conditioning in homes (superior insulation and strategic window opening keeps it bearable). Produce in most grocery stores isn't refrigerated. Recycling bins are everywhere, as is citywide composting (and the compost is used to generate power). From my desk in a friend's apartment, I can look out and see solar panels on the neighboring Haus.

Do all of these energy-saving ways make Germany wimpy? Hardly. The economy is going gangbusters here. Berlin's skyline is punctuated by cranes, as old buildings are rebuilt, and land left vacant by WWII bombs or by the fall of the Berlin Wall is filled in with shopping malls and upscale residential buildings. Germany is a world manufacturing powerhouse, and corporations have figured out how to make profits off efficiency. Meanwhile, Germany's soccer team won the biggest sporting event in the world. How did they do it? With efficiency, of course.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is based in Durango, Colorado, and tweets @jonnypeace.