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...