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Germany's Clean Energy Shift Transformed Industrial City of Hamburg

Clean Break: Chapter 5 in the story of Germany's switch to renewables

By Osha Gray Davidson

Nov 19, 2012
(Page 2 of 3 )
Electric trolley in Vauban, a car-free, energy-efficient zone in Freiburg.

• Sustainable mobility—HafenCity's design encourages pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and discourages auto traffic. Some of Hamburg's hydrogen-powered buses will serve HafenCity. Europe's largest hydrogen filling station recently opened here, and dozens of charging units for electric cars will soon join the 100 public charging stations already in service across Hamburg.

My reverie was interrupted by the arrival of the Wolfgang Borchert, a bright yellow ferry that pulled up to the pier six minutes ahead of schedule, bringing cheers from the crowd and obvious relief to the guard who smiled as she hurried to unhook the gangway chain and allow more than 100 of us to scramble aboard.

Standing at the back of the open-air top deck as the ferry pulled out from the dock, I had an even better view of HafenCity. Just as Berlin's Reichstag was built as a harbinger of the Energiewende, Hamburg's new development contains a striking building that advances the German energy revolution. The seven-story glass and steel Unilever headquarters rises from the riverbank, the shape and size of a docked ship. The building relies mostly on the natural light streaming through windows and pouring into a central atrium. Its light bulbs are LED, which are 70 percent more efficient than conventional bulbs. With its green roof, automated blinds that block direct sunlight in the summer and a host of other features, the Unilever headquarters consumes just a quarter of the energy per square foot used by traditional office buildings.

The fast-moving ferry headed downstream, leaving HafenCity behind. Fifteen minutes and three stops later, the ferry pilot called out "Neumühlen" over the loudspeaker—my stop—and angled the bow toward the pier. I followed the crowd streaming off the ferry and headed to my next mode of transportation, just over the pedestrian walkway: a row of cheery red bicycles, each marked with a white logo saying StadtRAD (in English, CityBIKE) Hamburg.

Bikes weren't covered by my travel day-pass but I discovered they are cheap and surprisingly easy to rent. Using my cell phone, I called the toll-free number printed on each bike. The operator explained that after I paid a one-time registration fee, which I did while we spoke, my credit card would be charged $1.20 for the first hour and a few cents for each minute after that. Ten minutes after disembarking from the ferry, I was pedaling my five-speed bike down the tree-lined Elbchaussee, admiring mansions built by 19th century shipping magnates and catching occasional glimpses of the Elbe.

There were nearly as many bikes as cars on the avenue. Germans are 10 times more likely to travel by bicycle than are Americans, and far less likely to travel by car than by other means. This is in part because so many clean, modern and affordable alternatives are available. But it's also because Germany, like other European countries, uses economic disincentives—primarily in the form of taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel—to decrease congestion, discourage wasteful fuel consumption and spur automakers to design more efficient cars. With a third of Germany's greenhouse gas emissions coming from transportation, this policy has also become an important tool in fighting climate change.

The taxes also mean that gas is much more expensive in Europe. In 2011, when a gallon of unleaded gas cost $3.29 at the pump in the United States, a driver in Germany paid $7.80 for the same amount of fuel. The price was a bit lower in France ($7.64) and a bit higher in the United Kingdom ($7.83). Most of the price differential between the U.S. and European nations comes from the higher taxes, which pay for new roads and for maintaining old ones. As the late Barry Commoner pointed out, there is no such thing as a free lunch—and Americans pay a high price for keeping taxes low at the pump, specifically in crumbling road and bridges. According to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. now ranks 14th in infrastructure quality, behind most European nations. Germany ranks number three.

Traffic congestion and sprawl translate into a longer commute for Americans than for residents in any European nations except Hungary and Romania. More time behind the wheel on poorly maintained roads is a deadly combination. Compared with European countries, only Greece has a higher traffic death rate than the United States. Germany's road death rate is 42 percent lower than America's.

At a little before 2 p.m., I reached Jenischpark, which an online reviewer called "a park for lovers and nature lovers." Scores of young German couples were lying in the sun, on an archipelago of blankets in a sea of bright yellow dandelions. I stretched out on a bench beneath a maple tree and watched a container ship in the distance pushing silently upstream on the Elbe. The sun felt good on my face. I closed my eyes and for 20 minutes engaged in an Energiewende of my own.

Jenischpark is part of a chain of parks and woodland areas that covers 17 percent of Hamburg—pleasant green surprises in a heavily industrialized city. New York City has Central Park, London has the contiguous Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens, and Madrid has Buen Retiro Park. But Hamburg has no single "great" park. Instead of grandeur, the city's green spaces bring nature within reach of just about everyone, every day. Nearly 90 percent of Hamburgers live within 328 yards of one of the city's 1,460 small-to medium-size parks, a system that attracts a million visits a week.

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