Monday, December 31, 2012

Vorsprung Durch Ecotechnik

Houses in Germany with solar roofs. Image from here.

Well, it’s been a busy few days since Christmas, which has seen me in no less than six different countries. The reason for this was the fact that I had to go over to England to pick up a large trailer I got cheap on eBay, as well as a bargain basement 10 year-old-car to pull it. 

When I got to England, on Boxing Day I couldn’t help but notice the whole place looked like a giant space toddler had spilled a cosmic glass of water over the whole country. Roads were submerged and trees poked out of what appeared to be lakes but were in fact fields. I have never seen the country looking so bedraggled and wet and it is quite amazing to think that only about ten months ago I wrote a post about the fact that meteorologists were forecasting a drought that would dry up all the rivers and lead to a devastating loss of wildlife. Well, they were a bit wrong on that one, with 2012 forecast to be the wettest year on historical record for England. Welcome to the new normal.

On the way out of the country a couple of days later, indeed, a flooded road led me to miss my car-train through the Channel Tunnel and I didn’t arrive in France until fairly late into the evening. When I did get there, France was entirely dark, so I don’t have any observations to make about the place, other than that it gets dark there at night time. Ditto with Belgium, which I entered later in the evening.

I had to make it to Eindhoven in Holland, where my motel bed awaited me, and did so at about 11pm. Starving hungry I enquired about getting something to eat (this particular establishment being located close to the motorway for ease of parking/locating) and was told that I could either pick from the restaurant or order sushi in the bar. A quick look at the restaurant confirmed that it was outside of my price league, so I retired to the bar to nibble on some wallet-emptying raw fish and sink a fine Belgian beer. Not for the first time in my life I marveled at the fact the Dutch are the best English speakers in the world; far better, indeed, than the English.

The next morning I hit the road again with my frankly gigantic trailer. The rain had cleared and it was sunny, illuminating the green Dutch landscape and putting me in a dreamy frame of mind. I had been driving at a steady 80kmph (50mph) all the way, as this is considered the best speed at which to save fuel – and here in Holland I noticed a strange thing: everyone else seemed to be doing the same. There were no aggressive light-flashing BMWheads eyeballing me as they screamed past. I had heard it said that the Dutch had got into eco driving as part of their fossil fuel energy descent plan, and here was the proof of it.

All that changed when I got into Germany. I always feel a bit nervous in Germany because I don’t speak more than about 50 words of German – a language deficiency often reciprocated by the natives in my experience. It has been a couple of years since I was last there – but what a difference! It is obvious even to one passing through that Germany is going hell for leather to make itself run on renewable energy. Last time I was there you could see all the wind turbines that had sprouted across the landscape – this time the story was all solar.
I’m used to seeing the odd house here in Denmark or the UK with a few solar panels on it. But Germany seems to be ramping up this on an industrial scale. Many houses sported 10-40 panels, but it was common to see barns, factories and even car showrooms with roofs made entirely of panels. Usually, as far as I could tell (remember, I was driving past) there would be 100-200 panels per roof. The record was one which had eight clusters of 8*8 panels, meaning there must have been 480 panels on a single roof.

A warehouse roof in Germany

Of course, and readers of this blog and ones like it will be well aware, that doesn’t make Germany ‘green’ or sustainable. There are still the monster truck parks, the giant supermarkets, the sprawling highways full of brand new cars driving at 200kmph (124mph) – and let’s not forget that Germany is a manufacturing country with a huge demand for high concentration energy and raw materials. I’m also well aware that Germany benefits from trading electricity with nuclear France, using that country as a giant battery.

But still. It’s hard not to admire the direction the country is taking. Everyone seems to be on board with it, and you’d have to be a dyed-in-the-wool cynic to say that a huge overhaul of the energy system conducted by this nation of engineers is not a step in the right direction.


  1. Hello,
    I have found your blog through JMG's one, and am very happy about it. Reading you is like reading my own mind. I am one of those "best English speakers in the world", as you call the Dutch, but do not live in Holland anymore. In 2007, we moved to the United States. I have lived in Holland (obviously), England, France, Sweden, US and Canada, so I know what it means to shift between different cultural codes.
    My husband regularly goes to Germany, and also mentioned the solar revolution.
    Of course, we know what you mean with Dutch eco driving, but it is not just eco conscience, but also fear of fines that is driving Dutch to limit their speed.
    I will contact you again, but have to make preparations for New Year's Eve now.
    Auld Lang Syne (which, in Holland, is a football song),

    1. Hello Jeannette - nice to hear we have similar minds!

      As regards your countrymen and their driving habits - I'm sure they were driving slow even where the speed limit was 110.

      Mind you, if Holland wanted a quick way to reduce emissions and save energy, perhaps it could get rid of a few of those giant greenhouses I saw where they grow flowers and are lit 24 hours a day.

      But then again, that would be a money loser ...

    2. Well, it has been a while since we drove over Dutch roads, so maybe Dutch driving has improved indeed in the meantime.
      As for the greenhouses: I am not a specialist, but I do know people in the Westland (the major greenhouse section of Holland) who grow peppers commercially, and they use geothermal heating (and special insects against plant pests). Actually, the techniques used in greenhouses are quite advanced. People have to, because eco-taxes are a considerable burden on a company's budget, and it pays off to look for ways to reduce its carbon footprint.
      For more information:
      that has a special section on the Netherlands.

      Happy New Year!

  2. Hello from San Francisco! I've enjoyed reading your biographical series. Quite a life you've already lived.

    This last summer I, too, was impressed by the amount of wind and solar capacity installed in Germany I could see just from my window when I took a train from Amsterdam to Berlin. (Have a blog post about it with some stats comparing Germany's renewables to California's here:

    The amount of PV Germany has installed is especially impressive given that the entire train ride to Berlin was at a latitude north of the US-Canadian border. I just wish Germany had decided to do away with their coal burning before doing away with nuclear. But their massive implementation of wind and solar is commendable, and their ability to integrate large amounts of these inconstant energies successfully into their power grid can be a model for the world.

    1. Hello Karen. Thanks for the link - it is a most interesting blog.

      I'd like to think that Germany's huge strides towards renewable energy will pay off, but today my cynical side has returned and I'm really of the opinion that such a set up can't continue without huge amounts of high EROEI inputs.

      With the resultant loss of societal complexity, I doubt such a system will be stable. Industry will leave ,en masse, to countries with a stable electricity grid - and German voters will demand the nukes are turned back on.

      See, told you I was being pessimistic today.

    2. I wonder how much of Germany's economic success is due directly to switching to renewable energy and consequent reductions in money flowing out for petroleum. I have no doubt that indirectly their success is largely due to the foresight they had that led to switching to renewables.

    3. I think you may be onto something there, John. Every time the sun shines or the wind blows Germany is on the receiving end of electrical energy pouring into its economy. It all adds up to a lot of oil that isn't bought or burned, and as far as I can see, that can only help it in competitive terms (given that it has no oil reserves of its own).

  3. """Not for the first time in my life I marveled at the fact the Dutch are the best English speakers in the world; far better, indeed, than the English."""

    Hey, what 'bout 'Mericans? ;)

    I don't see much of that here in the States, the slow driving or the solar PV. Head onto the plains, and you will encounter wind farms, but Congress just cut the tax credit, so what we have is all we're going to have for awhile. Otherwise, there's a house about three miles from here, across the river in St Paul, that has about thirty panels. There's another building about five miles from here, 30,000 sq ft, where Peace Coffee can be found. Otherwise, it's a rare sight, solar PV, here in the frigid heartland. Just about everybody drives everywhere too.

    The three-million people of the greater Twin Cities Minneapolis/St Paul metro generate their heat and electricity, from Nuclear (one facility thirty-five miles upriver and another 35 miles downriver on the Mississippi; Coal from the Dakotas; and increasingly fracked natural gas from wherever they can find it (there are few regulations, it's basically a lawless enterprise driven by investors and an indifferent-to-complicit Federal State.)) There is no effective discussion about this state of affairs, that I am aware of locally, though it seems timely to me, as my furnace is out and the temp has averaged about 10F (-12.22C) the last ten days.

    I don't anticipate any conversation about it either until some crises, probably. And the way things work here, the conversation is dictated by the media, which is effectively at one with the Federal/Banking/Corporate/Religious/Military empire, and the general lawlessness above a certain grade of influence, and so if there is a disruption in heating fuel or electricity, a significant number of my fellow Minnesotans will as likely blame it on Gay people, as on systemic ignorance and epic self-interested manipulation of energy markets and of people's thinking generally. LOL


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.