Sustainable UConn

By Rich Miller

How our values about the environment, clean energy, and social responsibility are greening the Husky Blue. Rich Miller is director of the Office of Environmental Policy.

Germany’s ‘Solar City’

Solar panels are on many buildings in Freiburg, like the photovoltaic array on the side of this office building. Freiburg has more than 12.3 MW of solar PV (mostly roof-mounted), generating more than 10 million kWh of electricity a year.

What would you expect from Germany’s “solar city?” Taking advantage of the fact that it’s located in the sunniest region of the country – a relative distinction compared with the often cloudy and cool northern Europe – Freiburg has installed more solar panels than any other city in Deutschland, and more than many countries in Europe.

Dr. Stefan Adler, the enthusiastic director of Freiburg Uni’s Center for Renewable Energy, explained to me how the city’s green reputation and passion for solar energy was born during the 1970s from a grassroots fight against a proposed nuclear facility, which was planned for an area just northwest of Freiburg, along the Rhine River. The protestors, led by local farmers, prevailed and the nuclear plant was never built.

Today, the long-time Green Party mayor, Dieter Salomon, remains a popular incumbent, and solar panels, wind turbines, and small hydro-electric facilities have been part of the cityscape in Freiburg for years. Anti-nuclear sentiment remains strong among the general population and, decades later, is still part of the sustainable energy message communicated by the mayor’s office and local businesses.

I met with Dr. Franziska Breyer, the city’s environmental director, in the town hall or Rathaus (a German word with an unfortunate double entendre in English), to talk about Freiburg’s plan for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. She was busily preparing for an important meeting of a town commission that evening, when she was hoping for the board’s approval to raise the bar on Freiburg’s interim carbon reduction goals. Dr. Breyer is a forester by training, and a former faculty member at Freiburg Uni. I appreciated the presentation materials she gave me from her latest annual report to town officials: “Approaches to Sustainability – traffic policy, climate protection, and urban development planning in Freiburg.” Many of the facts and figures cited in my report are from these excellent presentation materials.

Old meets new: New wind-power turbines on the edge of the Black Forest overlook Freiburg and the 800-year old Munsterplatz cathedral. A total of five Freiburg wind mills produce 14 million kWh per year and two more are planned. (F. Breyer, Büro der Bürgermeisterin, Freiburg)

A few small hydro-electric facilities can be seen along the Dreisam River, which flows across the southern portion of the city. Freiburg’s hydro power produces nearly 2 million kWh a year. (F. Breyer, Büro der Bürgermeisterin, Freiburg)

In addition to the governmental, residential, and commercial building owners who have installed solar arrays throughout the inner city and surrounding village districts, Freiburg University has also made a large investment in roof-mounted solar PV. On the university’s 550th anniversary in 2007, their Rector (chief academic official) announced a “Solar Uni” initiative with the ambitious goal of installing 550 kW of solar panels on campus over the next five years. Using government incentive programs that ensure a guaranteed rate of return for solar investors, many people, including students, faculty, and staff, actually acquired equity shares in these on-campus installations, and by 2012, the Solar Uni initiative achieved its lofty goal. In turn, these same incentive programs stimulated the growth of German solar developers and manufacturers, several of which are clustered in and around Freiburg.

Solar PV and thermal technology is not only a significant source of power and heat in Freiburg but also has stimulated an industry cluster that is important to the regional economy. (Photo of Solar Fabrik office building courtesy of F. Breyer, Büro der Bürgermeisterin, Freiburg)

Freiburg combines its long-standing commitment to renewable energy with more recent conservation-focused laws and resolutions proclaiming goals and mandates like zero-carbon development on land that it owns; more energy efficient replacement windows on existing homes; and low energy standards for new homes. For example, in the Green City’s Vauban eco-district, which was established in the mid-1990s through the redevelopment of the barracks in a former French military base, homebuilders must ensure that new residential buildings waste no more than 65 kWh per square meter annually – a fraction of the average for most homes in northern Europe. Walking down the main street in Vauban, along the two tram lines leading into and out of Freiburg’s inner-city, one sees solar panels, playgrounds, and small parks everywhere. Cars are prohibited within Vauban’s pedestrian village, which also gets the bulk of its electricity and thermal energy from a centralized combined heat and power biomass plant.

Solar panels are everywhere in Vauban, including on the rooftop of this café and commercial building.

Solar panels are on the rooftop of virtually every apartment building in the Vauban eco-district.

A biomass plant, combined with solar energy, produces heat and power for the entire Vauban eco-district. (F. Breyer, Büro der Bürgermeisterin, Freiburg)

As I left the eco-district and headed back to Freiburg’s inner-city on the tram, I checked “Vauban” off the list of destinations on my official Green City tour map. It had been well worth my time and the four euro roundtrip tram fare, but I was thankful that I hadn’t paid 180 euros for the two-hour guided tour. Eco-tourism is a big business in Freiburg, including group tours of man-made features, like Vauban, and nature excursions to places like the Black Forest.

Next: Sustainable energy in academics and operations at Freiburg University.