Region Forward Blog

Talking sustainability with experts from Germany and Denmark

Apr 6, 2012


Metropolitan Washington has made much environmental headway to be proud of. For example by 2011 the District of Columbia was the “state” with the most LEED certified green building per capita and it also beat out New York City as the U.S. city with most green buildings.

In 2011 Sustainable DC an intensive community outreach program was also launched to integrate residents’ ideas on how to make the District a more environmentally sustainable city into a draft plan by spring 2012.

The region nevertheless continues to wrestle with a number of challenges such as having to balance the different needs and desires of jurisdictions of all types and sizes when making regional decisions. With a short-sighted perspective sustainability and the investment return from clean energy resources like wind and solar can be a tough sell when compared to the cheap costs of dirtier energy sources such as coal and oil.

Costs of producing clean energy are dropping precipitously and clean energy is likely to be an economic boon in the long-run however in a still fragile economic environment it can be difficult to make the long-term argument.

To address environmental sustainability and political apprehensions MWCOG the American Council on Renewable Energy and Applied Solutions invited officials from Germany and Denmark and other guests to discuss the challenges and opportunities of clean energy initiatives from the perspective of their past experience.

Participants learned of Ostfildern for example a German suburb of about 40000 residents near Stuttgart that transformed a former military barrack into an expanded energy grid and Thisted a Danish town that utilizes biomass concentrated solar power and waste incineration.

The most telling example was Saerbeck a small German village of 7000 people where residents pooled together €2.5 million (with investments ranging between €1000 and €1000000) to purchase a power grid from a private company. Saerbeck itself also produces 29 megawatts from alternative forms of energy such as wind turbines and organic waste collection sites. The village aims to become completely energy independent by 2013 producing more energy than it consumes.

Perhaps part of the solution to cleaner energy is simply reframing sustainable development projects. Much of Denmark’s success for instance is its legislation making sustainability “bankable” by enabling energy investments to be reinvested into other programs; it is more compelling to “invest and build” and “save and reduce” simultaneously rather than do them separately said Frank Hettler the Public Administrator for Energy Management for the German city of Ostfildern. Municipal communication is another key element to developing clean energy initiatives. Ironically towns should not be viewed as “obstacles” but as “solutions” Hettler said. “Our technology is not so much advanced as our ability to communicate” he reasoned.

Another key point from the discussion was the need to expand local involvement in sustainable projects by expanding “citizen literature and investment” as well as “cooperative ownership” according to Applied Solutions’ Michelle Wyman and the DC Department of Environment’s Brendan Shane. Showing residents how sustainable development could personally benefit them would contribute to this process. These opportunities says Emerald Planet’s Dr. Samuel Hancock could “provide green jobs” and “broaden the economic base of local communities.”

Ultimately however local initiatives such as Sustainable DC can be more important to stimulating large-scale action on energy and the environment than big-name legislation which is likely to get watered-down in the political process. “Just getting something started is enough” Hettler concluded “Don’t wait for the ‘big law.’”

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