Northern European energy and climate initiatives barely known throughout much of the U.S. offer promising insights for a new energy future for American cities and towns.
SWEDEN — In Malmö, Sweden, generating renewable energy is as easy as cleaning up after dinner.
In this former industrial city in southern Sweden, residents are required to separate their apple cores, carrot tops, overripe bananas, and other food waste from the rest of their garbage. In some homes, residents need only push the scraps into a special pipe in the kitchen; it’s like a garbage disposal but it carries the food waste out of the neighborhood. The rotting food is then processed into biogas — produced when organic matter breaks down — and used to fuel 200 city buses.
Malmö’s food-to-fuel system is just one example of creative ways in which many northern European cities are beginning to produce their own renewable energy. Countries in this region are pursuing ambitious renewable energy targets: Germany, for example, is aiming to produce 80 percent of its electricity needs from renewables by 2050. Denmark wants to cover 100 percent of all energy consumption with renewables by 2050, and Sweden’s goal is to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Cities are well-placed to contribute to these goals, says Alix Bolle, media officer for Energy Cities, an association of 1,000 European municipalities working toward climate and energy goals. In the European Union, she says, 75 percent of energy is consumed in urban areas.
In Nordhavnen, a harbor district in Copenhagen, buildings in a planned redevelopment will be warmed in part with geothermal energy. Some cooling will come from a system that will pipe in cold groundwater and seawater. Kirsten Ledgaard, senior consultant at By & Havn, the government-owned organization leading the development, says the renewable projects in the district will help Copenhagen meet its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2025.
A Rural to Urban Movement
In Germany, which has offered large financial incentives to renewable producers, people in rural areas and villages are leading a movement to produce 100 percent of their energy from renewables, said Rebecca Bertram, a program director at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is affiliated with the Green Party. In the German state of Bavaria, large solar farms are a common sight in fields and on barn roofs. Bavaria is also home to villages like Wildpoldsried, which produces five times the energy it needs from renewables.
Yet some city leaders also see an advantage in producing their own renewable energy.
Freiburg, a city of 230,000 near the Black Forest in southern Germany, has cultivated a reputation as a environmentally conscious city. This view shows two of the city’s wind turbines; the city itself is visible in the distance. Photo: Sara Peach.
In 2012, Frankfurt’s city council decided to implement a master plan to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Today, the city generates renewable energy from solar panels, wind turbines, and organic waste. Eighteen other German cities are pursuing similar projects with financing from the federal government, says Bolle, of Energy Cities.
In Hamburg, a recently published “Energy Atlas” offers a strategy under which the city’s Wilhelmsburg quarter could supply itself with 100 percent of its energy and heating needs from renewables by 2050. The quarter has already converted a former World War II air-raid shelter into a thermal storage unit and installed wind turbines on a toxic waste dump. As reported here in July, these projects supply thousands of Wilhelmsburg homes with energy.
The city as a whole produces 17 percent of its electricity from renewables today, and is aiming for 35 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, says Simona Weisleder, project coordinator for IBA Hamburg, a seven-year project to research and test new ideas for urban development.
When a community produces its own energy, she says, it “creates a stronger and closer and often more emotional connection between the people and the goals of energy efficiency, renewable energies and climate protection.”
The Money Question
City leaders point to financing as one of the main obstacles to pursuing renewable energy.
“This is a huge point within the communities, especially in Germany, but I think also you have it in the United States, when I think of Detroit, for example, that communities don’t have the money to spend on great projects,” Simone Pflaum, head of the sustainability management department of Freiburg, says.
Freiburg, located in southwest Germany near the French and Swiss borders, is internationally known as an environmentally conscious city. One month after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Freiburg’s city council voted to abandon nuclear energy, and the city began pursuing energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Today, every new building must conform to the Passivhaus standard, meaning that the building requires hardly any energy for cooling or heating. A city landfill is covered by 17,500 square meters of solar panels that produce energy for more than 1,000 households, according to Pflaum. Since 2009, the city’s tram system has been powered entirely by renewables, and energy from the braking action of the trams is collected and fed back to the grid.
The 40-MW Middelgrunden offshore wind farm, built in 2000, delivers energy to nearby Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Sara Peach.
To finance these projects, according to Pflaum, the city often obtains grants to run pilot projects. Other projects are privately financed by citizens.
Another challenge involves the cost of land. As of 2010, the city was producing 4.6 percent of its electricity from renewable sources within Freiburg. But the city now finds itself running out of places to build houses, let alone more wind turbines or solar farms: “All in all, we will not be able to become 100 percent independent without getting renewable energy from the region,” Pflaum explains.
Inspiration for U.S. Cities?
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made headlines in June with a plan to rapidly expand the city’s collection of food scraps for composting. One day soon, his administration has said, the city might turn that food waste into biogas and use it to generate low-carbon electricity.
For New York City and other U.S. cities considering local renewable projects, Weisleder of Hamburg says she thinks it’s worth considering that investing in renewable energy can raise a city’s profile. In 2011, Hamburg was named the European Green Capital, and Copenhagen leaders are aggressively promoting the city’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025.
“Maybe your city will be known as the most sustainable city in the U.S.,” she says.
Bolle of Energy Cities says she thinks the first step for cities wishing to pursue a renewable energy strategy is to conduct a survey of locally available resources. She points to the town of Litoměřice in the Czech Republic, which completed an in-depth analysis that showed it had untapped geothermal potential. The city council subsequently decided to build a geothermal plant that will produce 18.4 gigawatt hours of energy each year.
“A city often has great untapped potential it isn’t even aware of,” says Bolle. “And here we are talking about all kinds of potential: material, human, financial.”