A Whirlwind Tour

On Friday (July 24), I hung out with Sebastian Müller, one of Freiburg’s city councillors. (Huge thanks to Dustin Zubke — a previous Watson Fellow from Harvey Mudd — for the introduction!) In the morning, we met up at Sebastian’s parents’ house for breakfast, and he made a ton of phone calls on my behalf. Afterwards, he took me on a car tour of the city (because of my temporary bike issues). I learned a lot!

First, a little background about Freiburg. Freiburg is both a city and an independent district in the state of Baden-Württemberg. I picked it as a starting point because it’s known globally as a Green City and there’s a lot of sustainable energy research going on there. I found out later from a contact at the Green City Office that Smart Grids were the topic of their Local Renewables Conference in 2012. Cool!

I started by asking Sebastian about Freiburg’s and Germany’s governmental structures, for context. Sebastian told me that Freiburg has a mayor and 48 city councillors. Although “city councillor” is a volunteer position in small municipalities, it’s a part-time job in a larger municipality like Freiburg. City council meetings are open to the public, but few people go.

Since Freiburg is also a district, it’s overseen directly by Baden-Württemberg’s Ministry of the Interior. According to Sebastian, higher levels of government in Germany (federal and state) are the ones that generally pass laws, and lower levels of government (state, municipal) execute these laws without much power to change them. This delegation of responsibility increases efficiency and perhaps decreases fraud; if you’re applying for an ID, the local municipal officer is likely to know who you are, making it harder to fake identity. At the same time, as Sebastian pointed out, this familiarity could also lead to collusion between citizens and a municipal officer they know well. In any case, sustainable policy follows this power dynamic too. The German government pushes sustainable policy, and while places like Freiburg are excited to implement it, other areas of Germany have to comply despite thinking the laws are too restrictive. It’s an interesting dynamic, and I’m excited to learn more about how it affects sustainable policy and public participation.

As mentioned before, Freiburg is known as a sustainable city. (When I asked Sebastian what this meant, he said that while Freiburg may not be the best in any one particular area of sustainability, it’s probably one of the best overall.) Given that reputation, I was surprised at some of the energy rules and politics Sebastian told me about. Solar power is widespread in Freiburg, but deployments have recently decreased because the government decreased the amount of money it pays renewable energy producers (called a “feed-in tariff”). Therefore, solar has become less attractive for small energy users across Germany. This jived with a conversation I had with Aparna Akka, in which she said that solar was inconvenient for homeowners to have to install — 50,000 Euros up front for a house in Marburg, with a 10-year payback period should all go smoothly. There are some blocks on wind as well. I’m probably missing some nuance, but from what Sebastian told me, I understood that new wind deployments in Baden-Württemberg cannot be in places where they’re very visible (like on top of mountains, where there’s lots of wind…) and building materials can’t be transported through forest roads. Needless to say, there hasn’t been any public wind development in Freiburg recently. Apparently there’s been even more trouble for wind and solar elsewhere, though. In the state of Bavaria, citizens’ groups are opposing new power lines that are necessary to replace centralized power plants (like nuclear and coal) with distributed sources of energy (like wind and solar). (Baden-Württemberg and the German government, on the other hand, favor these types of power lines.) When I asked what Bavarians wanted instead, Sebastian poignantly noted: “You don’t need to have a new plan to oppose something.” (He hypothesized, though, that Bavarian citizens probably favored local co-generation or gas plants.)

Given my high hopes for energy sustainability in Freiburg and Germany, I then asked the obvious question: why? According to Sebastian, one reason for these laws/blocks/problems is because before the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Germany’s “big four” energy utilities’ sustainable energy plan had been to re-commission old nuclear plans (which was cheaper than building renewable plants). However, they had to start decommissioning these plants after Fukushima, causing profits to tank. One of the energy companies, E.ON, subsequently decided to split itself up into two companies — one housing centralized energy, and one housing renewable energy. There are different analyses as to why (I saw this, this, and this online, in no particular order), and it’ll be interesting to see how things turn out.

I also asked who owned the companies, and how that affected their decisions. Sebastian told me that it varies, but the company Energie Baden-Württemberg (EnBW) is mostly municipally-owned and then also largely owned by Baden-Württemberg (more exact details and explanations here and here). There were apparently some fun politics where a French energy company bought up Baden-Württemberg’s shares to “get around” the EU’s energy import/export laws, and then Baden-Württemberg later used its emergency funding (technically reserved for emergencies like widespread plague) to buy those shares back. There are also more fun French-German politics because EnBW partially owns a French nuclear power plant in the Fukushima nuclear evacuation zone and is obligated to take 30% of the plant’s energy. Of course, Baden-Württemberg and the Swiss want the plant to close, while the French districts around the plant want it to stay open. Theoretically the French president wants the plant to close (his ex-wife was the head of France’s environmental ministry) but hasn’t done anything about it yet. Phew. The EU can be complicated.

After chatting and contact-calling, we went on the city tour. First, Sebastian showed me Green Industry Park, which has a number of green companies and research institutes, as well as an Ikea (?). As we drove through, Sebastian told me that green technology solutions are heavily pushed by industry, and that people preferred them over solutions entailing a change in lifestyle. I asked Sebastian whether he thought technology solutions would win out over lifestyle changes even if they meant a loss of privacy, and he seemed to think so.

Sebastian then showed me Rieselfeld, a former wastewater-dump that was then developed into a sustainable district; St. Georgen, which was merged into Freiburg in the1930s and still considers itself pretty separate from Freiburg (e.g. there’s no tram line there and it’s mostly single-family housing rather than dense apartment buildings); and Vauban, the “model sustainable district.” Vauban is largely a no-car zone, so we parked outside and walked around. Sebastian told me that although Freiburg in general is pro-sustainability, sustainability in Vauban is almost coerced/a social pressure. Below are pictures of Vauban’s co-generation plant, a city street, and some housing (Vauban has the most densely-packed housing in Freiburg). Vauban also has trailer housing, but I avoided taking close-up pictures of what are people’s homes (apparently tourists invading locals’ privacy is a huge problem in Vauban).


Sebastian noted to me that there’s been a lot of talk about how to make such sustainable housing affordable, as well as how to accommodate Freiburg’s steady population growth. In terms of affordable housing, Sebastian told me that some Vauban community members communally built their houses in order to bring down prices. In terms of space, Freiburg is planning to put up a new district. I personally wonder how these two goals will end up intersecting in the future.

After the tour, we met up with Sebastian’s friend Lukas for lunch. I then went back to the apartment to send some emails and decompress, and later met up with Sebastian at PH Freiburg (a teaching university) to watch Lukas perform acrobatics in their performing arts show. Although the show was sold out, we somehow found our way in… and I’m glad we did! The acrobatics were really good. And it hit me some time in the middle of the show that I’m in Germany, on the Watson Fellowship. Somehow, it doesn’t feel quite real yet. I wonder when it’ll finally sink in.

2 thoughts on “A Whirlwind Tour

  1. Great update Priya. Post a picture of Sebastian if you can. You talked so much about him, so I would like to connect a face to the name.


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