Visualizing a lifestyle without car ownership

Freiburg, Germany-You won’t find huge parking lots or drive thru windows in one German community on the outskirts of Freiburg, a city of 200,000. Leaving your car in front of your apartment here is mostly illegal. There is even an association committed to making the place as “car-free” as possible.

Vauban is able to pull off this urban design for a multitude of reasons. Its history as a former military barracks mean its grid was never intended to be clogged by cars at rush hour.

An association called Forum Vauban was formed shortly after the first barracks was converted to student housing. It went on to play a crucial role in advocating for human based design.
What results from this and many other factors is a community with a car ownership rate of only about 60%, according to Stadt Freiburg. One study estimates that a small fraction of trips made by Vaubaners are by car, as shown in the graphic below.

trip share infographic, Vauban vs USA

This gallery below helps you visualize how Vauban is able to facilitate a lifestyle largely without reliance on the car.

The social impact of an energy transition: what about the poor?

With the increasing price of fossil fuels, Germany’s energy transition has the potential of mitigating the costs through the use of renewable energy generation and energy efficiency legislation.

Energy Poverty in Germany

Energy poverty has become a forefront issue in Germany. Through increasing fossil fuel prices, low-income households spend a larger and larger share of their income on their energy bill. Increased expenditure on energy needs means less disposable income to spend on energy efficient appliances and vehicles, for example.

The Role of Renewable Energy

The cost of energy from renewable sources is more stable than the price of fossil fuels. No fuel costs and the continuous drop in equipment prices is the reason for the renewable energy price stability. An increase in the production of renewable energy resources than can help mitigate energy poverty through decreases energy expenditure.

The Role of Energy Efficiency

While low-income households may not have the income to invest in small-scale energy efficiency measures, there is room for the government to step in. Currently, the German government backs ‘energy audits’ nationwide. For those unemployed and receive welfare, energy efficiency measures are provided. These measures include fluorescent light bulbs and water-saving showerheads

The social impact of an energy transition: citizen engagement

The Energiewende Germany’s renewable energy transition is more than a package of energy policies seeking to increase Germany’s renewable energy consumption and production. This energy transition is unique due to the large role citizen’s play.

This can be seen in Bavaria where farmers who traditionally focused on agriculture for their main source of income. For a farmer, investing in renewable energy can supplement income. If large corporations dominated the energy transition, this supplemental income might not have been realized.

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The history of the energy transition starts long before the European Union’s 20-20-20 targets. Citizens of Germany fought to free themselves from nuclear power in the 1970s. Now, a nuclear phase-out is called for 2021 and citizens generate more renewable energy than utility companies.

“We need collective action for change,” Audrey Irvine-Broque says an Environmental Studies student in Germany. German citizens’ collective action has already made changes to the energy generation structure.

Source: Renewable Energy Agency
Downloaded from: Renewable Energy Agency

So why does citizen engagement matter? Citizen engagement in renewable energy production and the energy transition overall has community impacts. Investment in renewable energy can benefit the community indirectly through the tax investments in infrastructure like schools and roads.

Aside from these benefits, community ownership creates increase acceptance to change. There is less opposition to installing a wind-farm, for example, when a cooperative is able to invest in one in than if an outside corporation invested in the project.

Downloaded from: Renewable Energy Agency
Downloaded from: Renewable Energy Agency

Build the life you want to live: Community initiatives in Vauban

Part I : Short stories from Vauban and how it came to be

The city of Freiburg has been heralded as the “ecological” capital of Germany.

Take the train into the city and you can spot acres of solar panels as well as lines of wind turbines atop ridges in the neighboring Black Forest.

Passive solar houses are as common as the daily farmer’s market in the city center.

The majority of the people ride bikes and kids enjoy playing in car free streets.

Walk around Freiburg for a day and you’ll sense that it is a city for people.

One of the main reasons Freiburg is the sustainable city it is today is because it is also a city by the people.

Many of the aspects that make the districts of Freiburg so livable are a result of strong community participation.

This concept of local initiatives can be seen no more clearly than in the district of Vauban.

Once the home of French military barracks, Vauban has become the beacon of sustainability within Freiburg.

The district sustains 5,500 inhabitants and it does so with only 41 hectares (101 acres).

Cooperative housing (or Baugemienschaft) contributes largely to the density that makes this possible.

At the farmer’s market in Vauban, Valentine Glatz gave some insight on co-op living.

Valentine is the son of Bobby Glatz, the architect who designed and collected support for Sussi.

Sussi is a one of the first co-op housing buildings in Vauban.

It houses 260 residents. “I like living there because there are so many different cultures”, Glatz says.

Glatz also mentioned that his father had opposition from city officials, “They city told him it wasn’t going to happen” Glatz said, but the people pushed for the development until it became a reality.

Now co-ops are as common as riding a bike in Vauban (very common), and it all started with community support.

The very open air market Valentine was sitting in can be credited to the effort of residents.

After the community changed initial plans for the open space, the plaza has become the lively hub of the district and plays host to the market on Wednesdays.

Daniel, who works as a vendor at the market, says “They have the space, so why not use it?”

“Living in Vauban is a lifestyle choice”, Daniel added.

It is a product of what communities of all sorts are capable of.

However, you do not have to live in Vauban to appreciate the lifestyle.

Annette, who lives near Stuttgart, visits Vauban 2-3 times per week.

“This place makes me very happy”, says Annette.

When asked what makes Vauban so nice, Annette says “I’m not alone, I’m connected.”

This reflects largely on the community bond that supports the initiatives in Vauban.

The residents did not want cars on residential streets, so they made it against the law.

They wanted more room to play with their kids, and now the district has 4.6 hectares (11.4 acres) of combined public and green space.

There is a clear message here; build the life you want to live.

Build carefully, though. On reasons why she doesn’t live in Vauban, Annette says, “It’s too expensive, more than other places.”

Vauban may be a pleasant area to live, but it is only accessible to those who can afford to do so.

The cost of the modern, energy efficient homes are enough to deter people from living in such a sustainable and friendly district.

Annette is still searching for affordable rooms in the area, but until then, she’s happy with just spending time there anyway she can.

“I asked the worker at the cantina to borrow his bike”, Annette mentions, “and he said yes…that’s Vauban.”



Part II: Tips on how to promote community initiatives

Local initiatives can have a very big impact on the wellbeing of a city or town.

When the community joins forces to improve its circumstances, amazing things can happen.

Here are a view tips to get started on the next big thing in your community.

  1. Identify current challenges

You can’t improve your community if you don’t know what needs to change. Make a list that highlights the current areas of improvement in your community. While you’re at it, come up with some potential solutions or projects that could fix those issues.

  1. Find residents with a common goal.

It is easier to collect support for something when everyone is on the same page. Even if the motives for a certain project are different, things tend to move smoother when everyone is working towards the same target.

  1. Get loud!

Spread the word about what you want to do in the community and educate people about why it matters to them. Who knows, there are probably a lot of people with the same thoughts as you and are looking for ways to help.

  1. Ask your city officials what they can do for you

Projects on public property can take a little convincing to get up and going. Go to your city’s town hall or office building and explain what you would like to do and why. After all, you elected them so that they can use their resources to do what’s best for you.

  1. Set a deadline

Use time as a motivator. Set a deadline and make known to the public. This makes it less likely for you to postpone your project. Also, when you give yourself a deadline it makes it official and it gives you something to strive toward.



Part III:   Vauban in Pictures: A gallery of some of the ideas that became a reality because of local initiatives


To bet on batteries: The future of energy storage

The tragic flaw of renewable energy, wind and solar in particular, is its total dependency on the weather. What do you do when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing?

The technical word for this is intermittency. Unlike other forms of electricity generation such as coal plants that have a “base-load,” or constant, production, renewables are a trickier situation.

This is where energy storage comes in. When conditions are good and electricity production is high, it can be stored for future consumption and used during times of low supply.

However, not all of the technology for energy storage is ready to go mainstream. Certain types, such as pumped hydro and storage as heat (by heating a hot water tank) are more cost-effective than batteries.

Companies like Tesla are looking to change this picture. Making batteries more efficient, cheap, and increasing their storage capacity could allow them to be part of the answer to the question of intermittency.

Below is a graphic showing what energy storage looks like in a home.


4 ways energy storage could be a game-changer for renewables:

  1. Reduced intermittency

As mentioned before, storage helps overcome an inherent problem in renewable energy: intermittency. With energy storage in the picture, opponents of renewables can no longer use lack of reliability as an argument.

Greater percentages of renewable energy can be incorporated in the energy mix as base-load needs are reduced. Burning of fossil fuels becomes less necessary when renewable energy can be used even in poor weather conditions.

2. People can go off the grid

With enough energy storage and generation, homes could potentially go “off the grid” and power themselves completely with renewables. This could mean huge changes to the traditional utility model of electricity production.

If enough people buy in, utilities will have to change their services to meet customer demands. Lack of adapting could mean higher prices for remaining customers or profit losses. This could mean greater incorporation of green energy or a focus on electricity transmission instead of generation.

3. Better electric cars

It is logical that Tesla is one of the biggest companies investing in battery development. Their luxury electric cars also require batteries with large amounts of storage.

Greater research and development in the field of energy storage could make electric cars more appealing by increasing their range. Charging them with renewable-generated electricity helps to reduce emissions.

4. Balancing the grid

Energy shortages are not the only source of concern when a large number of renewables are incorporated into the grid. When conditions are ideal, there can even be too much energy—wind turbines have to be stopped in order to prevent an overload.

This is where energy storage and the grid (the network of lines that carry electricity) can go hand in hand. In order to balance the grid, a system operator could choose to store the excess energy. Later, the stored electricity can be used when supply is low.

Pros & cons of energy storage 


It is important to note that the role energy storage will have in the future is still very much up in the air. Some experts, such as Bruno Burger from the Fraunhafer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, believe that “the new market will be batteries.”

Others such as Christoph Podewils from Agora Energiewende (a German energy-transition focused think-tank) believe that “we have enough options to deal with excess power” and do not need more storage. Instead, he believes a highly interconnected European grid would be able to handle the varying electricity usage peaks of different countries.

Energy storage’s future is still uncertain, but it will likely need to be incorporated if renewable energy is to be used to its fullest potential.


No Sticker, No Entry: low-emission zones

Q&A: Low-Emission Zones 

Road transportation is responsible for some of the most harmful emissions in European urban areas. And with 2.5 billion cars forecasted to be on the road by 2050, the European Union (EU) is looking for the most effective way to reduce emissions. So far, the simplest solution has been to get cars off the road.

The EU’s Clean Air Directive is among the strictest acts of legislation worldwide to combat transport-related emissions. Since the EU enacted their air quality standards, member states must implement their own air quality policies.

And the majority are opting for Low Emission-Zones. Currently, Germany is home to the most Low-Emission Zones, with 50 in total.

Here is how low-emission zones work in Germany.

#1. What is a low-emission zone?
A low-emission zone (LEZ) is a clearly defined area into which only vehicles displaying a valid low-emission sticker are allowed to enter. The zones are designed to restrict the emissions of certain road vehicles that are not environmentally friendly. Specifically, LEZs aim to reduce the emission of PM and nitrogen oxides. A low-emission zone normally covers a large inner city area and surrounding roads.

Click here for a complete list of low-emission zones in Germany.

#2. How do you know what vehicles are allowed in a low-emission zone?
In Germany, there will be a sign posted, saying Umweltzone. The sign will display the emission levels allowed to enter the low-emission zone. There a three emission levels- green, yellow and red.

A green level means that only vehicles meeting the highest environmental standards are allowed to enter. A yellow level indicates that less compliant cars (i.e. newer diesel cars) are allowed. But this is only a temporary measure. All yellow and red stickers will eventually be phased out in Germany.

#3. How can you find out what level your car is?
The German government has categorized all vehicles into four classes based on the EU’s emissions standards. Classes are assigned based upon a vehicle’s size, weight, type of engine (diesel, gasoline, natural gas, electric), horsepower, intended use, number of seats, model year, combined emissions of PM, tailpipe pollutants and total hydrocarbons.

A vehicle’s class can officially be determined at any German inspection station. An Umweltplakette, or emission’s sticker, can also be purchased there for 5 euros. This sticker displays the level-red, yellow, or green- assigned based upon the vehicle’s class. An emission’s sticker is valid for the life of the vehicle.

What level would your car be? Find out here.

*Disclaimer This quiz is not an official determination of the EU standards used in Germany.

#4. What happens if a vehicle is in the highest emitting level?
If a vehicle receives the highest-emitting level, it is not allowed to have a sticker or drive in any LEZ. It is possible to retrofit a high-emitting vehicle to obtain a “cleaner” sticker. Some smaller vehicles can be retrofitted for approximately US$800 to US$2500. Larger vehicles are more pricey, with retrofit costs ranging from US$7,000 to US$22,000. However, not all cars are able to be retrofitted due to technological infeasibilities.

#5. What happens if a vehicle enters a Low-Emission Zone without a sticker?
LEZs are patrolled manually by local German police enforcement. The penalty for entering a LEZ without a sticker is a 40 euro fine and one point added to the driver’s license. However, not all vehicles are required to have a sticker. Motorbikes, vintage cars, off-road police, firefighters, and emergency vehicles are all exempt.

It is important to note that foreigners renting vehicles are not listed as being exempt. Click here to find out how to get an Umweltplakette, or LEZ sticker, during your stay in Germany.

#6. How does the public feel about Low-Emission Zones?
LEZs are controversial in Germany because millions of vehicles are no longer allowed to drive through designated LEZs in major cities. LEZs are also problematic for those living within the zone. Especially in large cities like Berlin, whose LEZ is home to 1.1 million people.

Business owners also feel disadvantaged by the LEZ system, say Birgit Biermann, a citizen and small business owner in Freiburg, Germany. Businesses in Freiburg are seeing declines in revenue from their French and Swiss neighbors who don’t have compatible emission stickers.

As a owner of a business and high-emitting level car, Birgit Biermann says that LEZs are effective, but to a point, because, as she said, “would you rather buy a new car or be fined 40 euros?”

#7. How successful have they been so far?
LEZs have been successful in reducing the amount of particulate pollution in Germany, according to the Federal Environmental Agency’s calculations. Despite their effectiveness, not all LEZs are made the same. For example, in Freiburg, Germany, the LEZ does not include the city’s major highway, says Steffen Ries, a citizen of Freiburg.



Featured Photo: Low-Emission Zones, Flickr photo by Press Box

5 reasons the EU-ETS failed and 5 ways the U.S. can improve

Why the EU Emissions Trading System has been unsuccessful

  1. The European Commission issued too many permits. The caps set by the EU were not restrictive enough to reduce emissions; in fact, there were more emissions allowances in 2007 than actual emissions. This caused the price of permits to temporarily drop to zero.Carbon permits are not effective when an unlimited number of them are free, which was the case in 2007.
  2. The financial crisis reduced the demand for emissions permits. Similar to the results of issuing too many permits, the global financial crisis of 2007-08 caused there to be a surplus of permits. This led the price of permits to be very low, giving emitters little incentive to stop polluting.
  3. Initial allowances were given out for free. This did not generate any revenue for the EU or the particular member country. However, some firms for which it was easy to cut pollution were able to generate exorbitant profits by selling their free allowances to other firms.
  4. No solutions have been passed up to this point, despite suggestions of creating a price floor as suggested by Titus Rebhann, the office manager for German Green Party member Oliver Krischer.
  5. The ETS was actually successful in one regard: “It put a price on carbon,” says Andrew Yates, a professor of environmental economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We might argue that the price is too low, but at least there is a price.”
    Yates said that firms paying a small price for carbon emissions is better than firms paying nothing at all. The ETS has led to a moderate decline in emissions, he said.

How the United States can improve

  1. The U.S. should issue no more than the number of permits that are required for the amount of emissions currently being produced. A price of $0 per ton of carbon, which temporarily occurred under the EU-ETS, is not ideal. Policymakers want the price of permits to be around $40 per ton said Yates. Issuing fewer permits than firms currently produce in emissions guarantees that firms will have to buy permits. Hence, they will also have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. The U.S. can implement an allowance auction. Alex Hoover, a J.D. candidate at American University, suggested in his paper “Creating a U.S. Carbon Market” that the U.S. should use an allowance auction to distribute permits. An allowance auction requires firms to bid on emissions allowances from the government rather than receiving them for free. The benefit of this is that the U.S. government would generate revenue.
  3. The trading scheme should contain an offset mechanism. An offset mechanism provides incentive to companies for undertaking projects that reduce carbon emissions. Companies are given emissions allowances for such projects, and then the companies can sell the allowances to recover their costs. Hoover also suggested this policy in his paper.
  4. Price floors and price ceilings should be implemented as a part of the trading system. A price floor is a market mechanism that prevents the price of a carbon permit from falling below a certain price. Similarly, a price ceiling prevents the price of a permit from rising above a set price.
    Market tools such as these help mitigate the effects of making a mistake in determining the number of permits to supply. If the government supplies too many permits, the price floor will ensure that carbon is not priced too cheaply. There will be a surplus of carbon allowances in this case.
    If the government supplies too few permits, there will be a shortage and the price will rise significantly. The price ceiling will ensure that carbon emissions are not too costly and that firms can actually pay to buy them if need be.
  5. Citizen participation should be allowed. Some cap and trade markets allow citizens to buy permits and “retire” them. More simply, citizens can buy permits and tear them up to prevent firms from having them. Buying and retiring permits is a way for individuals to become involved in greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

The global path to a carbon-free future: Carbon permits

The world as a whole emitted more carbon dioxide in 2013 due to burning fossil fuels than ever before. Estimates for 2014 pollution levels are not yet available, but were expected to increase by 2.5 percent to reach even higher levels. The United States is the world’s second largest carbon emitter, with approximately 14 percent of the global share, following only China which generates 28 percent.

Global carbon dioxide emissions have risen significantly since 1900. Graph courtesy of U.S. EPA
Global carbon dioxide emissions have risen significantly since 1900. Graph courtesy of U.S. EPA

Meanwhile, climate change is occurring, according to 97 percent of scientists, due to human activities that release carbon dioxide. In order to mitigate the effects of climate change, experts believe that the world must reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. One potential way to reduce carbon emissions is to create an emissions market.

An emissions market is based on the principle of “cap and trade,” under which the government sets a national limit on the amount of emissions that can be released. This applies to power plants, factories, industrial facilities, and all other carbon emitters. The purpose of an emissions market is to incentivize greenhouse gas emitters to cut back on the pollution they emit.

Companies are given emissions allowances, where each allowance or permit represents one metric ton of pollution. Firms must hold enough permits to cover their emissions; otherwise, they face significant fines. Greenhouse gas emitters are then allowed to trade permits with each other.

If a company has more allowances than the amount of emissions it produces, then it can sell its extra allowances to another firm that wants to emit more. This buying and selling process effectively places a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions trading systems are efficient because the firms that can most cheaply reduce their emissions are the ones that do so. Firms for which it is expensive to reduce emissions can buy permits to emit from other firms. This enables greenhouse gas emissions reductions to be achieved in the least costly way possible.

See this explanation for more information about what a carbon market is.

The European Union Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS or simply ETS) is the world’s first and largest international greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme. The ETS is like any other cap and trade program—the European commission set a cap on carbon emissions and issued permits to over 30,000 emitting firms.

ETS permits can be traded among firms and across time, meaning that if a firm does not need a permit one year, it will carry over to the next year. This flexibility ensures that emissions are cut where it is least costly to do so.

The system has been divided into several trading periods, with the first lasting from 2005 to 2007, the second from 2008 and 2012, and the current period from 2013 to 2020. Each trading period has a smaller allotment of permits available.

Improvements and changes have been made to the ETS during the past ten years. Two changes are that most permits are auctioned to the highest bidder rather than freely allocated to emitters and greenhouse gases other than carbon are included. Policymakers believe these changes make the ETS more comprehensive and in turn, more effective at discouraging greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging renewable energy production.

Greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union have decreased 19 percent below 1990 levels while the economy has grown by 45 percent during the same time period. This leaves the EU on track to meet its target of 20 percent emissions reductions by 2020.

Attributing the emissions reductions to the ETS is a tricky subject. Titus Rebhann, the office manager for German Green Party member Oliver Krischer, said, “The ETS has not been successful because the price per ton of carbon dioxide is too low.”

However, Andrew Yates, a professor of environmental economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, disagrees to an extent. Speaking about the success of the ETS, he said, “It has led to a moderate decline in emissions.” He did acknowledge, nonetheless, that the program has its flaws and could be much more effective.

Click here to read more about why the ETS has not achieved full success and how the United States might implement an emissions trading system of its own.

Check out the timeline below to see the global efforts to implement greenhouse gas emissions trading systems since 1990.

Take a chance on solar

Germany is known for being a leader in renewable energy, but did you know that North Carolina is a leader for solar energy in the United States? In 2014, NC had the second highest installment of solar capacity out of all the states.

June Blotnick and her husband Doug currently reside in Charlotte, NC, and they recently decided to install solar panels on their roof. In an interview with June, she discussed their motivation, and how their goal came to fruition.

Personal motivation

June said that a major factor for installing their solar panels is, “climate change caused by burning fossil fuels”. She said, “ We are committed to reducing our carbon footprint and we recently moved into a house that was perfect for solar panels.”

Financial incentives

There are state and federal renewable energy credits (RECs) that help reduce the cost of installing solar panels. Below is the financial breakdown of June’s invest in her solar roof.

How to start?

June and her husband purchased their panels through a program called Solarize Charlotte which is no longer available. When asked if she had any advice for installing a solar roof in North Carolina, June said “There are a number of Solarize programs across the state (it’s a program of the federal Dept. of Energy). There is also a program called Energy Sage which helps homeowners come up with 3-4 quotes from different installers easily online”. She also said getting a group together with one installer helps reduce the cost.

Community awareness

In the United States, solar roofs are not a widespread occurrence, and in her neighborhood, June is a solar pioneer. “We live in a neighborhood where lots of people are walking, biking, strolling, jogging,” June said. “And hundreds of people go past our house every day so we’ve had lots of inquiries from neighbors.” Their solar panels are simultaneously generating clean energy and generating awareness. “We want to spread the word,”June added.


Five more reasons to install a solar roof in NC

In June Blotnick’s opinion, the top reason to instal solar panels on your roof is for the environmental benefit. In addition to generating electricity emissions free, there are also financial motives to invest in a solar roof.

  1. Federal Tax Credit: You can claim up to 30% of qualified expenditures for installing your solar panels. You must be a taxpayer, the dwelling must be located in the United States, and it must be used as your residence.
  2. NC State Tax Credit: You can claim 35% of qualified expenditures with a ceiling at $10,500. When you combine the state and federal incentives, 65% of the total costs could be covered by tax credits.
  3. Net Metering: Net metering allows residential and commercial customers who generate electricity from solar power to feed unused electricity back into the grid. The extra electricity that you produce turns the meter backwards, and if the meter is negative then you make a profit.
  4. Saving and making money:  Installing a solar roof increases the value of your home. It turns unused roof space into a revenue, and it reduces costs of cooling your house.
  5. Predictability of the sun: The amount of daylight and the path of the sun is predictable. The amount of electricity you will generate each year can be estimated based on your location, so you can estimate your rate of return and profit. You can rely on the sun to never stop shining.


If you need more reasons, here are some additional sources: