Klaus Hoppe on Cities, Climate Protection, and the Role of ICT

On August 21, I met with Klaus Hoppe, a free-lance consultant from Freiburg who helps integrate energy solutions into municipal plans. He takes a system-wide approach to this topic, working with companies, researchers, and municipal governments on tasks such as proposal writing and running citizens’ workshops. Before starting Klaus Hoppe Consulting, Mr. Hoppe worked for 21 years in the administrations of Freiburg and Bad Dürkheim on energy and waste management. During our meeting, we discussed the role of Smart Grids and ICT in municipal climate protection actions.

Smart Grid Plans in Germany

I learned from Mr. Hoppe that Germany and the EU have a number of programs supporting municipal climate protection.* Since climate protection isn’t a municipal obligation (unlike, e.g., waste management), top-down support programs such as the National Climate Protection Initiative through the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) can finance and spur municipal climate protection actions. The German government also funds German signatories to the Covenant of Mayors, a European movement of local and regional authorities fighting climate change, for certain actions detailed within their Sustainable Energy Action Plans.

Mr. Hoppe was previously an evaluator for one such program, the Smart Cities portion of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program (previously CONCERTO). This program helps cities improve their energy systems and achieve zero-emissions targets with ICT. In particular, the program funds building retrofits, improvements in electric and heating infrastructure, and electrification of mobility. For instance, some cities sought funding to outfit lamp posts with sensors for measuring air quality or pedestrian traffic, and others sought to add weight sensors to garbage bins so the waste management department could be notified when the bins are full.

Mr. Hoppe particularly liked the Horizon 2020 program’s holistic approach. The evaluation committee comprised experts from multiple fields (namely ICT, mobility, buildings, and municipal administration), and the committee favored proposals featuring cooperation between cities, companies, people, and other relevant actors. Each city was required to partner with two other cities in different countries to jointly develop solutions, technological platforms, and interfaces. Applicants also had to declare what data would be collected, why, and to whom the data would be available. There are some criticisms of this program — specifically, that it’s too industry-driven and that some cities submit “Trojan horse” proposals and then use the funds as they wish — but overall, Mr. Hoppe felt that it facilitated holistic and cooperation-based municipal action.

Step by step, Smart Grids and Smart Cities are getting more important in municipal climate action plans. Mr. Hoppe surmised that Smart Grids perhaps progress more slowly in Germany than in the rest of the EU because Germans are more conservative. However, Germany recently shut down seven nuclear plants without a replacement plan, which means it’s now forced to “fail forward” in developing smart ICT for optimal power plant management and system communication. (Mr. Hoppe mentioned that in a way it’s good Germany didn’t wait for a replacement plan, or else the big utilities — who favor centralized power plants over small, decentralized energy production — might have lobbied and postponed the shutdown.) The world is now looking towards Germany, and Germany therefore has a responsibility to make progress.


Is it about ICT?

The central question when developing such ICT solutions, Mr. Hoppe posed, is whether the ICT serves the original goal for which it was intended. We should be partially critical of every solution, and ask questions such as the following continuously:

  • What is our final vision or target, and how does the ICT solution support it?
  • Will this solution primarily benefit the world, or the company/person proposing the solution?
  • Are we improving citizens’ lives through this intervention?
  • Do citizens want this intervention?
  • Will these solutions actually increase our energy demand because they require extra servers and/or cause rebound effects?

ICT solutions also collect an immense amount of data. Mr. Hoppe felt that some people are so excited about the data itself that they collect it without knowing the purpose ahead of time. However, it is important to think about who controls the data collected. Mr. Hoppe suggested that some data should be supplied on an open-source platform, which would create opportunities for smart startups. In this context, different countries and cultures need to think about what data should be made public, and what should be kept private. Mr. Hoppe also noted that perpetual data collection in and of itself doesn’t help make decisions; at some point, we have to have the guts to actually make decisions using the data, existing knowledge, and rules of thumb.

Given his skepticism, I asked Mr. Hoppe whether he could envision a 100% renewable energy system that doesn’t use ICT or “smart” solutions. He said no. ICT enables the connection of demand and renewable energy supply through virtual power plants and demand-side management solutions. It enables optimal usage of renewable energy sources across regional and national borders, so that wind turbines (for instance) don’t need to be shut off when there’s too much supply. It enables a decentralized electricity system with storage and small utilities that feed energy into the grid. ICT is useful beyond just electricity grids as well. In buildings, ICT can manage lights and sensors to reduce demand, modify a building’s energy portfolio, or integrate storage or rooftop solar panels. In mobility, ICT can serve as a city’s “logistics system,” optimizing car-sharing and traffic flow, scheduling last-mile deliveries, reducing parking search time, and enabling electric mobility (though Mr. Hoppe gave a caveat that if traffic flows well, people might potentially use more cars and thereby increase overall emissions). In waste management, putting sensors in garbage cans can reduce how much garbage pickup lorries have to drive through a city.

In Mr. Hoppe’s personal opinion, ICT in and of itself is not stoppable. Therefore, it is important to direct the “ICT train” properly. There are some criticisms of the EU on this front. Some critics say that Smart Cities are just a way for industry to implement and sell products, and that industrial lobbies are strong. Cities complain that Smart City programs are too research- and industry-driven, with the committees deciding the content of EU support programs comprising 90% industry/research/lobby and only 10% cities. Meaningfully including municipalities in the decision-making process can make a big difference.


Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up

In general, different German actors have different visions for the future electricity system. Big utilities fight to save large power plants, whereas smaller actors push for decentralized production. It’s unclear where Germany will end up.

Mr. Hoppe opined that there is a strong, albeit partial, trend towards decentralization. German society started decentralizing long ago, through initiatives such as co-operative banks and citizen-led building societies. Today, municipalities and grassroots movements play a strong role in sustainability and climate action. Municipalities engage in integrated city development planning, and inclined municipalities even cooperate with each other. People at the grassroots are engaged in the renewable energy movement, in large part because they dislike Germany’s Big Four energy companies. Energy production is also predestined to be decentralized, as decentralized renewable technologies are getting cheaper, are less prone to attack or Fukushima-like failures than centralized nuclear power plants, and replace unsustainable oil and coal-based energy. ICT can also aid with this decentralization. However, while the movement is decentralizing to an extent, Mr. Hoppe believes that the electricity system will not change completely. Many citizens and other actors are interested in talking about renewables, but then do not actively work towards a renewables-based system by (for instance) going to citizens’ meetings. The right people and structure need to be in place for decentralization to succeed.


Common Factors for Municipal Success

Mr. Hoppe has worked with many municipalities, so I asked him about some common factors that determine whether a municipality will succeed or fail in its climate protection plan. He said some of the main factors are:

  1. Luck. A municipality may work hard, but there’s no guarantee that it will succeed. Conversely, perhaps the municipality may find success where it thought it wouldn’t.
  2. Strong political leadership and vision. A strong municipal council goes a long way. Additionally, the administration cannot just administer. It also has to think ahead and get a large portion of its citizens to accept its final vision.
  3. Necessity. Cities facing economic deadlines or downturns have no choice but to think about new opportunities, and renewable energy can be one of these opportunities. Renewable energy can reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas and bring about regional added value through jobs. For instance, Freiburg has a chamber of craftsmen that educates workers in proper installation and maintenance of solar, cogeneration, cooling, etc.
  4. Cooperation. There must be a culture of cooperation within the administration, which can sometimes be a challenge. The city’s stakeholders — researchers, NGOs, architects, citizens — cannot think in silos, but instead must explore potential solutions together.
  5. Natural resources. Cities naturally endowed with sun, wind, or a river for hydropower are more likely to succeed in their renewable energy plans.

In context of these factors, I asked how “successful” Freiburg is in sustainability. Mr. Hoppe responded that Freiburg is about 60-70% “green.” Freiburg started with climate protection early, founding a climate protection unit in the Energy Department during the 1970s nuclear protests. Since then, Freiburg has been ahead in some aspects and behind in others. Freiburg’s Green City brand and the Green City Cluster were invented by Freiburg’s mayor to promote tourism. Sometimes that brand leads to inertia (“We’ve done a lot already, so now it’s somebody else’s turn.”), and sometimes the brand leads to action (“We need to live up to our name.”). As an example, Mr. Hoppe told me about a recent fight during which Freiburg’s tourism department proposed a new office building to the City Council. This building just met Freiburg’s building standards, whereas the Green Party felt it should exceed the standards by being zero- or plus-energy. The office building companies and the energy folks are now chatting, trying to come to a compromise on greenness vs. price. However, Mr. Hoppe pointed out, the companies should have come forth with multiple plans from the start (“green, greener, and greenest”) to enable a better discussion.


International Collaboration

Finally, I asked Mr. Hoppe about how international collaboration could aid climate protection. He told me that Germany has a ministry called the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) that is explicitly responsible for development policy. The BMUB’s National Climate Protection Initiative has an international counterpart, the International Climate Protection Initiative, that funds climate protection in foreign countries. There’s also a company called GIZ that helps the German government with international collaborations and sustainable development, and that has recently started to work on Smart Cities. Economically, Germany is also interested in exporting technologies to other countries (though so far it’s been more of a leader in engineering than in ICT).

There are also international partnerships on the municipal level. Mr. Hoppe posed that cities — not countries — will solve the climate change problem, as even cities that are different share some common challenges and understanding. Today, international organizations such as ICLEI, Climate Alliance, and Energy Cities facilitate networking between municipalities from different countries on climate change, energy, and sustainability. Additionally, the EU has a “twinning” program in which EU and non-EU cities exchange funds and expertise with their partner cities (for instance, Karlsruhe, Germany and Pune, India). According to Mr. Hoppe, city-level collaboration will continue to gain prominence as we address the issue of climate change.


* The German word “climate change” (Klimawandel) implies adapting to climate change effects, whereas the word “climate protection” (Klimaschutz) implies mitigating these effects. [back]

(Note: The interviewee reviewed the above writeup before its publication.)

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