Sunday, December 30, 2007

Observations on a Germany Road Trip



Just back from a trip to Germany, so here are a few observations in the areas of energy, environment, and society. These thoughts compare Germany with America, as well as Germany with itself--at least from the perspective of an American who has visited on average one or two weeks a year for the past 30 years, sometimes as a tourist, sometimes as a student, sometimes spending Summers with my Grandparents in Berlin when I was younger (which probably distorts my view with a fair amount of fantasy).

Over the last two weeks, we drove about 1600 kilometers through Bavaria, in southern Germany. While most of Europe, and Germany in particular, is known for its efficient and high-speed rail service, there was no shortage of trucks on the road. Even with diesel fuel at $7.25/gallon, the freeways were completely jammed with trucks--much more so than America, and much more so than the Germany that I remember on previous road trips since reunification (significant because it made the German highway system a transit point, rather than lying on an edge of Western Europe). The trucks were an even mix of long haul--delivering goods from Romania and Poland through Germany to Netherlands, France, etc., and domestic freight shipment. I guess this surprised me to some degree--I expected the combination of high diesel prices (prices have always been "high" in Europe, but they're much higher now than they were several years ago there just like in America), excellent rail alternatives, and a greater "green" consciousness to lead to the opposite result. Not so.

Other than trucks, there was also no shortage of personal cars on the roads. That isn't particularly interesting, but it is always interesting to see the various "high-mile-per-gallon" cars available in Europe that just aren't sold in the US. VW's Lupo CDI (a smaller version of a VW Golf, mostly) gets 70 miles to the gallon. There are lots of similar high mileage cars available--and they are widely driven. Mercedes makes one (the "A" series), BMW makes one (the "1") series, as does VW, Peugeot, Renault, Citroen, Fiat, etc. Maybe the Mercedes A series is for sale in the US, but I don't think any of the rest are. I think part of the reason is that, in the US, brands don't like to occupy the full spectrum from super-economy to super-luxury, so companies like BMW, Mercedes, and increasingly VW don't want to even offer the super-economy models in the US. Whatever it is, it seemed clear to me that there is no excuse for not having high MPG cars available for sale in the US. On the flip side of this issue, while there are virtually no SUVs on the roads in Europe (you do see some Land Rovers), the number of "cross-overs" seems to have increased dramatically--cars like the BMW X5. Also, there are at least as many high-end (e.g. non very fuel efficient) Mercedes, BMW 7-series, etc. on the road in Europe as there are SUVs in the US. It seems that Europeans just get by with their 7-Series station wagon (which doesn't seem to carry any negative connotations) instead of an Escalade. I guess not having 5 kids helps there--I saw quite a few two child couples, but by far more one child couples and virtually no 3+ child families. Good in one sense, but doom for their ponzi-scheme pension plans.

Another area that I felt my observations bucked the accepted wisdom was in the area of suburban development. There are no (or very little) US-style, suburban mass developments in Germany, but I think that is for lack of huge parcels of undeveloped land. Instead, their development seems to be gradually spreading out along the roadways. Increasingly, Germans shop at "einkaufzentrums" (shopping centers) that are outside town and require a car to get to. Increasingly they work in industrial parks or office centers that are also outside town--more and more, it seems that the stereotypical walking to the store and work is challenging in Germany. It's still certainly more feasible than in the US (by far for most people), but it is getting harder, and even with the rising price of oil, people don't seem to be valuing this in their living/working/shopping choices. While TOD (transit-oriented development) is all the rage (well, somewhat the rage) in US cities today, it seems to be fading in Germany. I even (*Gasp*) saw a huge, faux-Bavarian (this was in Bavaria) "outlet mall" complex (yes, called "outlet mall") along the A7 autobahn nearly Wurtzburg. I'm sure there are many reasons for this, and my observations may be an unrepresentative sampling, but I can't help but wonder if the general European policy of using high fuel taxes as a buffer on price volatility isn't exacerbating this effect to some degree?

Overall, I felt that while it was clear that Germany is currently much more energy efficient than the US, the trend seems to be moving towards greater efficiency in the US much more aggressively than in Germany--in fact, it was my impression that Germany is moving away from efficiency in all areas other than installed solar, though this is certainly only a rough impression and in no way an exhaustive (or even objective) survey. More than anything else, this seemed to be true in the area of built-environment. Current US energy inefficiency is largely the result in our massive sunk capital expenditure in suburbia and an auto-oriented lifestyle. But, we seem to be moving away from this slowly, or at least making some efforts to moderate it. Germany seemed to be putting most of their current capital flow into investments that will calcify an increasingly energy INefficient economy. I have a sneaking suspicion that I've got this all wrong, as it runs so counter to conventional wisdom, but it was my distinct impression...

On a positive note, I saw more new solar installations in Bavaria than I've ever seen in my life. I saw several large Photovoltaic farms near Landsberg--several acres of PV panels each. There must be some serious tax credits for PV, because every little village has many--maybe one in four or one in five houses--with large PV setups (several KW installed) or solar hot water setups. Lots of barns have huge (as in 20-50 installed Kilowatts) panel arrays on them. I think that the last time I drove through Bavaria was 2002, and this certainly struck me as an entirely new development in those past 5 years. There were also many massive wind turbines randomly scattering the countryside, but I remember those clearly from previous visits so wasn't really struck by the change.

The only other observation that I think I'll throw in (only half tongue-in-cheek) is my ongoing conspiracy theory that Germans (and Europeans in general) secretly sit at home behind drawn curtains drinking several bottles of water and eating green vegetables every day, such that they can maintain the public appearance of minimal fluid intake and a diet consisting entirely of refined carbohydrates (and potatoes), meat, and alcohol. Hmmmm...

5 comments:

RyanLuke said...

There must be some serious tax credits for PV, because every little village has many...

I believe that rather than tax credits, the method used to encourage the development of renewable energy in Europe is feed laws.

goritsas said...

This squares quite well with my own observations from here in the UK. Travelling in various parts of Europe on a regular basis one thing I have noted, that many seem to overlook, diesel and petrol powered transport is deeply embedded within the fabric of Western Europe. In absolute terms fuel consumption is less and miles driven are lower but the role the motor car and lorry play within Europe is of no less importance than in the US, IMO.

Clearly, the UK is a leader in the expansion of the motorway network and the increased dependence upon personal motorized transport. But my experience throughout Europe (meaning Scandinavia (all 4), Germany, France Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey) makes me wonder just how great the impact an increase in scarcity of liquid transport fuel will be on the expectations and attitudes of many throughout Europe.

While we can applaud the efforts being made in Germany by expanding solar and wind, I cannot help but think the motor car has become far more important and more deeply embedded within daily life for so many its inevitable decline will hit hard, very hard indeed. This is something that too many American commentators fail to recognize let alone appreciate.

Go to any campsite in France during summer and among the predominantly French occupants will be a significant smattering of Dutch and German and Belgian citizens as well. Many of the French travel the length and breadth of France to reach their summer destination. The rise of the motor car has indeed lead to a rise in the occasions of use of the motor car and super markets are now located along major route corridors only reachable by the motor car.

As for the UK, we too suffer from the US model. Our governments willingly fund expansive road projects while allowing our “public” transport to be privatised and at the same time allow an almost imperceptible decline in both its quality and quantity. Not to forget permitting many above the rate of inflation ticket prices. We are expanding our suburban environment and this is often on green field sites. We are deliberately paving over arable land and giving planning permission for development in known flood plains. Every passing year sees more out of town shopping and ever larger car parks.

As I said above, the greatest issue with the motor car in Europe is not fuel consumption or miles driven in absolute terms. It is how deeply embedded the motor car and lorry have become and how dependent Europe has become upon them.

robin said...

Hi,
as a German I can tell You the reason:
We feed these photovoltaics like hell!
Every KWh is paid with around 0,60 Euro,
and even this way no private investor is really msaking any profite.
And this support is paid by the average inhabitant! The richer ones doesn`t care very much for the 10 to 20 Euros plus to their bill, but the poorer ones really suffer.
No wonder - this law is made by the "Greens", and they are the "betterearners" - this law is highly "asozial".

And the worst thing is:
These "betterearners" sell it with "Good conscience" for the invironment!

Following Jeff Vails "Price-estimated EROI" it should be obvisious, that a PV costing nearly 12 (rather 20!) times the money than the costs of the energy it is produced from, the result is:
In this PV is 12 or 20 as much (dirty!!)energy invested (wasted) , as is (clean) produced,
but here in Germany there NOW ONE to find, who even WANTS to think about this problem.
(I can sing long songs about that - I try since 10 years now, to explain it here: http://lt.accb.de/ , it is been dicussed, but there is no chance against the mainstream).

So I wish You in the states:
Never try to copy the german system,
stay as pragmatically as You do.
PV ist a waste of energy, nothing else, if the society has to support it.
If PV is cheaper than regular electricity (like I saw in the outcast in Virginia) - it is OK because allinall it may be cheaper,

but if it is more costy,
it is not a waste of money!!
It is a wate of Energy!

regards
lef

excuse my mistakes .
.

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