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Low-Carbon Lifestyle:

More Than Saving Electricity


More Than Saving Electricity


The Germans pay three times as much for electricity than the Taiwanese, yet Germany has been making great efforts to phase out cheaper nuclear power, investing instead in reducing carbon emissions and developing renewable energy sources. What can Taiwan learn from this?



More Than Saving Electricity

By Kwang-yin Liu, Kuo-chen Lu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 588 )

Bottrop, a town of 110,000 people located in the Ruhr industrial area in west central Germany, once relied on the coal mining and related heavy industry that fueled the country's post-war economic miracle. At the end of the 1980s, the mines were closed down as coal mining had become too expensive. With most of the mining jobs gone, the town encountered an exodus as residents left to find work elsewhere.

But now this former coal mining town is marching toward a low-carbon future by implementing the Paris Climate Change Conference’s pledge to keep the rise of global temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In 2010, Bottrop won the InnovationCity competition among cities in the Ruhr region to become the pilot area for the climate-friendly city of the future. Under the ambitious initiative, Bottrop aims to cut carbon emissions by 50 percent in ten years to transform itself into a low-carbon economy. Revamping old industrial districts in the city by making old buildings more energy-efficient is at the core of the project.

We toured Bottrop to get a glimpse of the German household of the future, as well as to figure out how Taiwan could curb its own carbon dioxide emissions.

It is December, winter in Germany, as the reporters visit a five-story office building in downtown Bottrop. The complex, more than half a century old, was only recently completely modernized and refurbished. Now it is Germany’s first "plus energy" office building, which means it actually generates more energy than it consumes. Simply speaking, the building is an organism that generates energy and even provides electricity for use by others.

Generating More Than It Consumes

Next to the elevator, we spot a lamp that looks like a normal lighting fixture. Yet this lamp does not consume any electricity, instead redirecting daylight, bundled by reflectors on the roof, through light tubes or light tunnels into every corner of the building.

On top of that, the elevator uses solar energy from the photovoltaic system on the roof to charge its batteries. It also has a regenerative drive that recovers excess energy. A geothermal heat pump is used to heat the building, while its rear façade and the ventilated front curtain wall have been insulated with rigid polyurethane foam. All these measures help to greatly reduce the building’s energy consumption.

Rüdiger Schumann, head of marketing and communication at InnovationCity Ruhr, notes that the renovated building consumes 60 percent less energy than before. Before its modernization, the office building used 80,000 kWh of electricity per year compared to 35,000 kWh now.

The solar panels on the roof are mounted on solar trackers that enable them to tilt toward the sun as it moves throughout the day. This photovoltaic system generates 26,000 kWh per year. Together with a small-scale wind turbine, the solar energy system produces more electricity than the building consumes.

More than 80 companies, including chemistry giant Bayer AG, polymer materials supplier Covestro AG, engineering and electronics firm Bosch as well as electricity and gas company RWE Group, support the InnovationCity project with cutting-edge technology in a bid to transform Bottrop into a city with a low-carbon lifestyle.

Now that the project is in its fifth year, a total of 290 million Euros have been spent on modernizing and renovating old buildings, helping curb carbon emissions by 38 percent or the equivalent of 100,000 tons. In the city center, more than fifty older buildings have been refurbished, so that Bottrop boasts a retrofitting rate of 15.8 percent compared to an average 0.5 percent nationwide.

High Prices Discourage Waste

How do ordinary Germans go about living a low-carbon lifestyle? Frank, a 39-year-old marketing manager for Covestro's construction segment, does not live in Bottrop, but he nonetheless saves energy wherever he can. From very early on, Frank taught his three-year-old daughter and his 6-month-old son how important it is to conserve energy, for instance by switching off the lights or the heater when they are not needed. "I hope that they experience from childhood on that our resources are limited and that we should therefore use them sparingly," Frank says.

The Germans definitely have monetary incentives to save energy.

Based on the average annual electricity consumption of Taiwanese households - 3,600 kWh - and an electricity price of NT$2.85 per kWh, the annual electricity bill in Taiwan totals NT$10,260. But German households pay 0.29 Euros per kWh, which amounts to electricity costs of NT$37,332 per year, more than three times of what Taiwanese consumers pay.

A closer look at a German utility bill shows that costs for electricity generation account for only 25 percent of the total. Grid usage fees account for another 23 percent, and the renewable energy surcharge adds another 21 percent, while the remainder consists of miscellaneous fees and taxes such as sales tax, electricity tax and so on. Germany uses these surcharges to subsidize investment in renewable energy as well as the industrial sector.

In other words, if consumers truly desire a better environment, they will have to pay the resulting higher costs. High electricity prices also discourage wasteful habits. According to a U.S. report, the average electricity consumption of a family in Germany is only one third of that of an American family.

However, to say that the electricity price is the major reason why the Germans strive to conserve energy and to cut carbon emissions is only half of the story.

Beyond Saving Electricity 

What makes the Germans tick when it comes to living a low-carbon lifestyle? Renowned energy consultant Mycle Schneider was born in Cologne, Germany, but has been based in Paris for many years. Schneider founded the independent citizen's science group World Information Service on Energy, known as WISE-Paris, in 1983. He has been advising members of the European parliament on energy issues and serves as consultant to Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon on carbon emissions-reducing measures.

The German “passive house” building design uses ambient energy sources such as daylight, natural ventilation and solar energy instead of purchased electricity and fossil fuels.

"To say the Germans chose a low carbon lifestyle only to save money is not entirely correct. We view it as a necessary means to achieve a sustainable way of life," Schneider says.

He posits that the most fundamental energy issue should not be saving electricity in terms of kilowatt hours but whether there are efficient ways to provide people with energy services.

He cites lighting as an example. The benchmark for lighting efficiency should not be how many kilowatt hours we save but whether the illumination increases our happiness and wellbeing. "If we think of the issue of energy saving in terms of kilowatt hours, the only solution we would come up with is replacing the light bulbs with LEDs. In fact, the best way to provide lighting is maximizing the use of sunlight," Schneider says.

He points to the US$2 million retrofitting of a Lockheed Martin office building in Sunnyvale, California with daylighting systems that halved the facility's electricity consumption. As a result, the company was able to recoup the retrofitting costs within four years. In a rather unexpected outcome, employee absenteeism fell by 15 percent, which amounts to a 15 percent productivity gain. Employees said they were happier and healthier. All these are effects that cannot be gleaned from the electricity bill.

"The first priority is always wellbeing. The saving of money or kilowatt hours is only secondary," Schneider posits.

Schneider’s ideas call to mind the passive house (Passivhaus) concept developed by German building physicist Wolfgang Feist some 30 years ago. Houses built to the passive house standard can reduce energy consumption by up to 70 percent while maintaining a high level of comfort with simple affordable heating and cooling systems.

No Harm to the Economy

After delving deeper into the energy issue, we discovered that, while the Germans also sometimes take the wrong track, they know how to learn from their mistakes. "Germany isn’t a model student. Some of our experiences deserve to be studied, but not all of our experiments have been successful," notes Schneider. Industrial users pay much less for electricity than private households in Germany, which means that consumers effectively subsidize power-hungry industries, which many perceive to be socially unjust.

Schneider observes that, while German electricity prices have been increasing over the past decade, they began to decline earlier this year. "The costs for renewable energy sources are plummeting worldwide as the technologies have reached adulthood.," Schneider says.

The German experience also shows that curbing carbon emissions does not necessarily negatively affect economic growth. In 2014, Germany’s carbon emission growth rate declined by 6.7 percentage points year-on-year. During the same period, the economic growth rate increased by 1.2 percentage points. If we look at these figures over the past two decades, it becomes apparent that reducing carbon emissions and economic growth do not conflict with each other.

Schneider notes that Germany’s energy transition, which aims to replace fossil and nuclear energy with renewables, forces companies to rethink how they cover their energy needs. Since there is a clear timetable for phasing out nuclear power, corporations and individuals grit their teeth and invest in energy-efficient solutions.

"The most difficult shift is in one’s head, to make people’s wellbeing a priority. A low carbon lifestyle is not a choice; it will happen," he remarks, speaking with strong conviction.

It will probably not be possible to transplant the German experience directly to Taiwan. This would mean squarely accepting higher electricity prices, practicing low energy consumption and resolutely abolishing nuclear energy. Germany made change happen by thinking in new directions and bravely facing the truth.

If we truly want to march toward the goal of keeping global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels, then we here in Taiwan must probably ask ourselves: Aren't we doing too little? Are we determined enough?

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz