Virginia Tech Goes to Germany (Part 2)

Part 2: A visit to Freiburg—the greenest city on the planet.

In May, Rosemary Carucci Goss, Ph.D., Residential Property Management Advisory Board Professor and Julia Beamish, Ph.D., Professor of Housing and Department Head of Virginia Tech’s Apparel, Housing, & Resource Management Department, took students on a three-week “Globalization of Housing and Property Management Tour” in Germany. Click here for Part 1 of MHN’s series “Virgina Tech Goes to Germany.”

The first stop for Virginia Tech was the Black Forest area in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg region for a visit to the Hansgrohe factory as well as extensive walking tours of the city of Freiburg. Freiburg is considered by many environmentalists to be the greenest city in the world because of its extensive use of solar energy and other renewable sources as well as an innovative waste management concept. Citizens are rewarded with incentives when they avoid creating waste—for example, when they use cloth diapers—and they receive discounts for collective waste disposal pooling and for composting their own green waste.

The city’s environmental journey began in the 1970s, when a nuclear power station was being planned in the vicinity of the city. After the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, the plans were ultimately abandoned. Since then, solar energy has become the principal new source of energy and solar panels can be found on the roofs of the Badenova soccer stadium, schools, churches and housing. Freiburg Mayor Dieter Salomon is a member of Germany’s environmentalist political party known as the Green Party and he facilitates Freiberg’s adherence to five star sustainability.

“Freiburg was really amazing,” says Jess Molson, who’s working on a degree in Residential Property Management (RPM). “I’ve never seen so much solar power in one place. I guess a lot of it has to do with how expensive energy is here in Germany, because it’s more cost effective for them to use solar.”

Maegan Carey, also in the RPM program, adds, “In Freiburg they’re a lot more conscious of [sustainability] than we are in the U.S. You see a lot of the panels incorporated into the buildings as a decorative feature so it actually looks pretty. A lot of Freiburg residents sell the energy they save right back to the grid.”

A highlight of the Freiburg tour was seeing the solar powered soccer stadium. According to Jack Senske, RPM Program, energy for the stadium is also contributed by city residents since each house in the town owns five solar panels. “The cool thing is that people are able to sell their energy back, and they get about $250 to $300 Euros every year. They don’t store what they don’t use. Instead, they sell it back for a profit, which I think is awesome.” Senske adds that he completed a one-credit class before coming to Germany that required research and a Powerpoint presentation on a certain city of the upcoming trip. “Mine was on Freiburg, so I knew a little about the soccer stadium going in. It also blew my mind that everywhere we went (Freiburg, Berlin and beyond) everyone was on bikes. The public transportation is great.”

Colin Bixler, RPM, is interested in solar because of his dad’s involvement with solar contracting. Bixler worked with him for a summer in Blacksburg, Va., installing solar on houses. “One of the biggest things for me when I came over here was learning more about the systems they use. In the U.S. there’s not a lot of incentive other than the contractor’s ability to show how a system can pay itself off. But in Germany they have a system called a feed-in tarrif (FIT). When you produce energy, the energy companies will pay you and provide an incentive. It’s kind of like an investment where you’ll get a return,” Bixler adds. “Because the energy companies in the U.S. can rely on cheap energy, if you have solar on your house, they’re not willing to accept that energy and pay you because they can get energy from coal which is much cheaper.”

The Freiburg neighborhood of Vauban was master-planned on the site of a former French military base. The development is connected to the Freiburg city center by a tramway. All housing is within easy walking distance of a tram stop. More than 70 percent of the households have chosen to live without a car. According to Bixler, this was one of the most interesting days in Freiburg. “Every building in Vauban was multifamily. Every building is powered by solar photovoltaic and they also had solar water heating. The sun heats all the water and stores that in the basement,” explains Bixler. “In the U.S. we have Energy Star and LEED. Germany has Passive House Certification which focuses on building insulation to the point where you don’t need heat during the winter. Your body heat is enough to heat your apartment.”

“Most of the housing we saw in Freiberg had metal shutters. It keeps the rooms cool,” adds Erica Kiechlin. “I’m a Housing major, so I noticed that right away. It’s a good way to keep out the sun and heat. I also noticed a lot shingles. When we were on the train going places, it seemed that at least 85 percent of the homes we passed had solar panels which was insane to see when compared to the United States where it’s a novelty. It’s because the energy costs are so much higher here in Germany.”

Harnessing wind power helps bring down those energy costs. “These windmills were huge,” says Trey Routier, RPM. “The way they utlize the wind power [in Germany] is pretty impressive. Being from the Philadelphia area, I’ve never seen wind power being utilized to this extent. Another thing I noticed was that at the hostel in Freiburg they had motion sensor lights throughout the hallways and the bathrooms. This is a pretty nice feature, which I haven’t really seen in the United States. It seems like something that can be easily implemented.”

Routier adds, “I don’t know if the United States has embraced motion sensor technology yet. But I think that in apartment buildings something like that would be very cost effective—and drive down utility costs for the owner. For me, the motion sensor lighting would be something I would be interested in looking into when [I’m working in the industry]. I’d also like to get more more involved with solar panels. And, depending on where I work, I’d want to incorporate those little windmills on buildings to help reduce energy costs. But, the motion sensor lighting seems the easiest to incorporate; and the most acceptable for Americans to try to take it one step at a time.”