26 May 2017 | Paul Hockenos

Cities' & municipalities' role in the Energiewende

Local energy transitions across Germany play a key role in achieving the goals of the national Energiewende. In this factsheet, we provide some of the facts and figures key to understanding the power, opportunities and challenges of localities switching to a green energy supply.

Local government autonomy in Germany

Municipal autonomy in Germany is enshrined in Article 28, paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Basic Law, Germany’s constitution, which guarantees local self-government. Municipalities have “the right to regulate all local affairs under their own responsibility, within the limits prescribed by law”. This promotes decentralisation, unlike in France and the United Kingdom, where local policies are largely determined by central government.

The German municipality’s role in multi-level governance

Over the past two decades, German municipalities have increasingly become part of a thick web of “multi-level governance”, on matters of energy as well as many other fields.

With worldwide, cross-border problems such as climate change, international structures like the United Nations increasingly set guidelines and make resolutions that affect localities. For example, the Paris Agreement brokered in 2015 within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, and the UN’s New Urban Agenda, address the need for localities to transition into sustainable, low-carbon communities.

At the European Union level, localities have long experienced the ramifications of supranational governance. For example, the Energy Industry Act of the 1990s, Germany’s national legislation and implementation of EU directives pertaining to energy markets, liberalised Germany’s energy economy by abolishing monopolies and, then later, prompted the de-bundling of distribution and production. This impacted many German municipalities that owned lucrative, privileged energy generation facilities and/or grid networks. In addition, municipalities today are expected to conform to the stipulations of the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme, the Renewable Energy Directive, and Energy Efficiency Directive, among others that broadly affect the Energiewende and climate protection.

Germany’s federal government  sets the framwork for the Energiewende at the local level through legislation and policies, such as the Renewable Energy Act, the Federal Building Code, and the Energy Saving Ordinance. The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety’s Climate Action Plan 2020 includes several measures pertaining explicitly to localities including the LED Lead Market Initiative, and others in the areas of climate-friendly heat generation and e-mobility. In November 2016, the federal government passed the Climate Action Plan 2050, formulated in light of the Paris Agreement. It sets parameters and goals that will ultimately influence all three levels of governance in Germany.

Then there are the federal states (the 16 Länder), which work hand-in-glove with municipalities on energy generation and efficiency. They drive the Energiewende forward through funding programmes, investment in research, zoning laws (Raumplanung), and licensing and supervision procedures. Their legal frameworks, such as action plans (SEAPs) and Baden-Württemberg’s Renewable Heating Law, are binding for localities in their jurisdiction. Moreover, as members of the Bundesrat, Germany’s upper house of parliament, the Länder weigh in directly on federal legislating.

That still leaves municipalities with autonomy to implement policy as they see fit and formulate their own policies and plans within the larger frameworks. They determine how to reduce their own administrations’ energy usage, many aspects of regulation and planning – for example through building codes, the provision of energy, public transport, and housing - and how best to support and inform their citizens.

What does municipal energy consumption look like?

The German Association of Towns and Municipalities (DStGB) represents the interests of 14,000 towns and municipalities. The Association of German Cities (DST) incorporates the 200 cities and towns in Germany.

There are 11,116 municipalities in Germany and roughly 186,000 publicly owned buildings. Buildings account for about 40 percent of Germany’s energy consumption, and about a third of CO₂ emissions. Street lighting accounts for up to 40 percent of municipalities' electricity costs. Municipalities spend around 4 billion euros on energy each year. The bulk of these costs stem from municipal buildings. In 2014, public facilities accounted for around 10 percent of German net energy consumption, the total bill for which was more than 2 billion euros.

The German Energy Agency (dena) estimates that energy conservation measures can help localities reduce energy costs by 80 percent. Modern heat pumps, for example, consume up to 80 percent less electricity than older heating systems (heating systems or heat pumps?). Modern lighting systems could save cities and towns up to 75 percent on electricity costs for lighting.

What funding is available?

There are dozens of financed programmes and aid schemesto expedite the municipalities’ shifts into low-carbon smart cities, towns, and villages. They include the National Climate Protection Initiative, Benchmark/Coaching Municipal Climate Protection, ECORegion, European Energy Award, EMAS, Siemens Green City Index, Master Plan 100% Climate Protection, Energy Municipalities, Transition Network, and 100% Renewable Energy Regions, Energy Efficient Municipalities, among many others.

How urbanised is Germany?

Only four cities, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Cologne boast populations of more than 1 million residents. Another ten German cities have more than 500,000 people. According to the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), 60 million people – 73 percent of Germany’s total population – live in the country’s 2060 cities. The population of Germany’s 300 largest cities is about 38 million or 46 percent of the country’s populous.

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