26 May 2017
| Paul Hockenos

Cities, municipalities, and the Energiewende

Towns and cities central to heating and transport transition

Germany’s energy transition is a vast national project that is reshaping the entire country. But, of course, it is also taking place on a local level. With the shift to a decentralised energy system, renewable power has been increasingly generated in, and often owned by, local communities. Urban centres are where much of the country’s energy is distributed and consumed. And as the energy transition expands its focus from the power sector to heating, buildings and mobility, population centres will be where crucial changes take place. Germany will only meet its climate targets if localities implement their own energy transitions, which can also bring economic benefits. They have opportunities to take different paths but must also overcome local challenges.

German experts and politicos regularly underscore the centrality of localities to the clean energy transition. They cite high energy consumption in urban centres and the generation of renewables on municipal land. And, after all, towns and cities are where the Energiewende must happen: where much of the country’s energy is generated, distributed, and consumed.

“The next big phase is heating, mobility, and buildings,” says Reimund Schwarze, climate economist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig. He argues that compared to power production and grid development, which have been the main focus of the Energiewende so far, these are “sectors to which the cities and localities are more central. These fields are less influenced by federal framework legislation”.

“Take the amount of concrete used in construction in cities,” Schwarze says, noting the volume required in urban construction and its large carbon footprint (the cement industry is one of the primary producers of carbon dioxide). “The cities hold the key levers there. This is where the future of the Energiewende and Germany's compliance with the Paris Agreement will be decided.”

Michael Müller, head of the Energy Efficient Municipality programme at the German Energy Agency (dena), underscores that transforming the energy system brings municipalities more than prestige. Localities that implement energy efficiency measures save costs. “Energy efficiency is a double bonus for municipalities,” he told CLEW. “Today, the municipalities pay about 6.5 billion euros for the power and heating of nearly 200,000 public buildings. Street lighting alone costs about one billion euros. The budgetary problems of many municipalities thus makes more efficiency a necessity.”

As Germany shifts to an increasingly decentralized energy system, communities become more involved in producing energy – and more aware of how they consume it. The local level is where the Energiewende will be supported or rejected by the German public, who, even if they approve, have the choice to be more or less actively involved. Likewise, in terms of mobility, towns and cities are where traffic is heaviest, and it is localities that make decisions over public transportation, local traffic codes, and zoning laws – all central fields for making or breaking Germany’s “Verkehrswende”, or sustainable transportation transition (see sidebar).

The Energiewende offers “cities and municipalities a wide range of design possibilities”, says Gerd Landsbergist, director of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities (DStGB), which represents 11,000 cities and towns. The localities “have to work with the resources they have”, adds Marc Elxnat, also of DStGB. “They have to choose from different methods and models that fit for them. There’s no one role model or one right way to do it.”

The autonomy that localities and the 16 states enjoy in Germany’s federal structure (see CLEW fact sheet on German federalism) make them a good fit for an Energiewende that is a decentralized, adapt-as-you-go project that never had a single, set-in-stone blueprint. While central targets and key regulatory tools like the Renewable Energy Act are put in place on a national level, the Energiewende looks different from city to city, municipality to municipality. Localities have the ability to pass the laws and action plans that most effectively leverage the potential of their geography and social capital.  

Still, Germany’s municipalities, many of which are chronically underfunded, depend on money from above. There’s a complex interplay at work in which EU, federal, and regional structures set overarching goals and provide funding, while municipalities and counties muster the ideas, agency and expertise to realize the goals as best they can – and as they see fit.

Until the federally funded National Climate Protection Initiative (NKI) programme, which allocated funding for climate protection in localities, started in 2008, most municipalities were either unwilling or unable to formulate their own local climate protection concepts, as the federal government had urged them to do. (And still today there are municipalities that drag their heels, though usually because of insufficient resources, not categorical opposition to the Energiewende.) But the funding and capacity assistance that the NKI provided spurred 3,000 municipalities to design climate protection concepts of their own. It was a major breakthrough in getting the municipalities on board. The NKI’s programmes promoted climate protection in municipalities through innovative projects and, in particular, providing funding for highly efficient, small combined heat and power systems (mini CHP systems).

“It’s not like every city or county is doing its own thing completely, entirely independent from one another,” explains Bjoern Weber of the German Institute of Urban Affairs (DIFU). “There’s ever-more coordination between regions and between municipalities and the states.”

How localities in Germany approach the Energiewende depends significantly on three factors. First, the engagement of key actors, such as a dynamic mayor, interested businesses, strongly pro-Energiewende political representation, an engaged municipal utility, or relevant university institutes, among others. Secondly, in addition to the EU and federal laws that apply to all localities, the legal frameworks of their respective states, as well as their counties and regions, are crucial for localities. And, thirdly, the programmes and advisors that the localities choose to support them – with financial aid, overarching plans, personnel, and advice – also steer their priorities and focus.

Germany’s cities and localities, experts largely agree, are the terrain of the future of the Energiewende. But the guidelines they must orient themselves to are often complex and decided upon far away. The Paris Agreement, for example, charts a course for localities the world over to confront and halt climate change.

In Germany, localities can choose from a plethora of financed programmes and aid schemes to expedite their transformation into low-carbon smart cities, towns, and villages. Grants, loans, expertise and matching funds are available through these programmes from their home state, the EU, and at least five federal ministries, often dispersed by third parties such as the German investment bank KfW and Project Management Jülich. A locality can participate in more than one programme, dipping into multiple pots of money at the same time.

The multitude of programmes can be frustrating for localities. “The communities, especially the smaller ones, can get lost in the jungle of programmes and funds,” says Weber of DIFU. “In the field of energy efficiency in particular, there are many ways to tap into funding, but you have to know how to do it and have the capacity for it. Some poorer localities don’t have the expertise to implement the schemes. They tend to fall behind.”

Germany’s towns and cities tend to be active supporters of the Energiewende – and some have profited greatly from it, in terms of the creation of added value, modernizing infrastructure, reducing pollution, mobilizing citizens, and creating jobs, among other perks.

“The people of my counties have wholeheartedly embraced the Energiewende,” Bavarian MP Josef Göppel, a Christian democrat (CSU) from traditionally conservative Franconia in eastern Bavaria, told CLEW. “They’re engaged in many aspects of it, so much so it’s like a small revolution.”

For Bavaria, the bioenergy boom that followed the introduction of support of green power under the Renewable Energy Act in 2000 was instrumental in getting citizens on board with the transition. Farmers found they could make a healthy profit from biogas plants, and this was true in other parts of the country, too. In the county of Marburg-Biedenkopf, in Hesse – which consists of 22 municipalities administered from the old university town of Marburg – farmers getting involved in the bioenergy sector was one strand of public participation, along with owners of rooftop solar arrays and green activists in Marburg, that was key to driving a local Energiewende.

Marburg-Biedenkopf built on this by getting involved in national and international initiatives, setting its own climate targets, and accessing funding from a range of sources to meet them. These included the environment ministry’s Master Plan 100% Climate Protection, an exclusive programme to bolster trend-setting localities. As participants, municipalities accept the challenge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent by 2050. In a first phase, participants develop a plan outlining concepts on how to achieve the initiatives’ ambitious aims. One participant, the city of Heidelberg, identified 12 topics of primary importance in 2012-2013, including existing building stock, the traffic sector, the integration of renewable energy sources, the involvement of local consumers in households, public buildings, commerce and industry, as well as the tourism industry, the university and the city’s historic centre. In a follow-up phase, such measures are implemented with the aid of federal funds, as is currently happening in Heidelberg.

But public engagement with the Energiewende doesn’t always drive the government’s plans forward. Municipalities have also become headline-grabbing battlegrounds where communities oppose contentious projects, such as electricity superhighways and wind parks. This is often referred to as NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) opposition, which has the power to grind progress to a halt.

For the most part, municipalities are required to follow the policies and implementation guidelines of the states and other regional structures, such as regions and counties, in which they are represented. But when groups of citizens organise in opposition to projects they see as detrimental to their interests, the municipalities may become involved on their behalf. “The municipalities don’t block anything with their powers, rather they step in to negotiate on behalf of the citizenry,” says Benjamin Dannemann of the Renewable Energies Agency (AEE). “They broker a compromise, for example, like by urging the grid operators to bury the cables,” he says, referring to a federal government decision to force grid operators to lay new maximum voltage transmission cables below ground rather than overhead, following protests in Bavaria.

And municipalities which do not have the geography or resources to profit from subsidies tend to be less enthusiastic. After all, they pay the surcharge on renewable energy that winds up in the pockets of farmers in Bavaria and elsewhere.

Yet even towns and cities have potential for green power generation – primarily by utilising rooftop space for photovoltaics (PV). Many are held up as best practice localities, even in parts of the country less obviously ripe for an energy revolution. Magdeburg, for example - an eastern German town that suffered stark economic decline following reunification - has also been included in the Master Plan 100% Climate Protection programme. Here, job opportunities in the green power sector provided a welcome economic boost, after wind turbine manufacturer ENERCON began operations in the town in the mid 90s. This, along with Magdeburg’s involvement in the international Climate Alliance initiative that saw the city set itself ambitious emissions reduction goals, mean it got off to an early start with its energy transition. The groundwork was therefore laid for participation in numerous other national green energy programmes, which came with funding.

Magdeburg and the county of Marburg-Biedenkopf may have taken very different paths but they are now on the same page in the Master Plan 100% programme, which will segue them and other high achievers together. “It’s through the Master Plan 100% programmes and the climate protection managers that we get some continuity in the localities,” says dena’s Cornelia Schuch, an expert on local energy management. “It’s a means to go forward systematically.”

Interestingly, both Magdeburg and Marburg-Biedenkopf also made missteps – which they and others could learn from. In 2010, Marburg-Biedenkopf’s Social Democrat-Green administration wrote into law a stipulation that all new housing be fitted with solar power generation capability, where it was feasible. But a court stuck it downruled it was too intrusive. A court in Magdeburg ruled that, for reasons of data protection, Magdeburg-Stendal Polytechnic could not put the results of its buildings evaluation on the internet or provide it to private contractors. Nevertheless, it can legally be used in the city administration’s ministries.

Magdeburg and Marburg-Biedenkopf pride themselves on their green credentials. But most experts agree that all of Germany’s localities and cities must get on board, not just the overachievers. For this reason, Peter Pichl of the UBA, Germany’s main environmental protection agency, who works on the Master Plan 100% programme, is not in favour of a third round of the programme.

“We have supported enough model localities,” says Pichl. “In the future, all municipalities should be motivated to commit to the climate protection goals of the Master Plan 100%,” he says. “There are still thousands that aren’t working with any kind of overarching climate protection concept at all. Each of them has to be motivated to jump on board first by creating a relevant climate protection concept, which they would then later ramp up to a Master Plan 100% level. The 40 Master Plan 100% localities are spread across Germany, so others can now see how it’s done.”

Most guidelines and measures have until now been non-binding for municipalities if they are not attached to aid. Like Pichl, researcher Weert Canzler of the EUREF Campus in Berlin wants all Germany’s localities to take part. “It’s difficult to penalize municipalities in Germany,” he says, referring to their constitutional autonomy. “This has to change at some point. The goals must become binding and all localities should receive incentives to see them through.”

A surprising laggard in the German energy transition has been the country’s capital. In 2011, Berlin  committed to becoming climate-neutral by 2050. In June 2016 it introduced a new, more robust Energiewende Law, to reach that goal. But there is much to be done. The city’s old building stock consumes a huge amount of energy, its population is growing, and reducing emissions from traffic is a major challenge. Berlin has plans to utilise roof space for PV and ambitions to be the country’s “solar capital”. But so far it generates about 5 percent of its power from renewable sources.

Cities like Berlin want to expand the generation of renewables in urban centres through “Mieterstrom”, where tenants buy electricity produced on site through either rooftop PV or CHP, bypassing the electricity grid. But Ulrich Stock, of the Berlin Senate’s urban development and environment department, says federal legislation requiring the taxation of directly marketed renewable energy is an obstacle. “What Berlin and other cities want to do in terms of increasing their generation of renewables, primarily solar PV, is not being made any easier by the federal government’s current policies,” he says. “The current laws make Mieterstrom a lot less attractive. And they’re blocking a key tool for cities to help Germany reach the Paris goals.”

In an address at dena’s November 2016 conference “The Future of the Energiewende” in Berlin, German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks stressed that the new international and German federal guidelines will play out in Germany’s towns and cities. She underscored the Climate Action Plan 2050’s "Climate Friendly Building and Living" strategy as the roadmap for turning urban areas climate neutral. “The city of the future is a ‘smart city’ - digital, networked, (hopefully) intelligent, but not virtual,” said Hendricks. “Smart systems and technologies are designed to help gather information and make rational decisions, avoid traffic, reduce emissions, conserve resources and save costs and create added value.” But we can’t, she said, lose sight of the fact that human beings will be living in them.

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