Published on November 17th, 2013 | by Giles Parkinson


“Crazy” Becomes The Norm In Germany After Tremendous Green Progress

November 17th, 2013 by  

(Note: This is part of a series of interviews and stories that will run over the next few weeks looking at Germany’s Energiewende, and the transition of Germany’s energy grid to one dominated by renewable energy).

“They told us we were crazy.”

It is a phrase you often hear from Dr Dieter Salomon – the Australian-born mayor of the German city of Freiburg – a city so much at the vanguard of the green transformation that is currently underway in Germany that it calls itself – Green City Freiburg. It probably feels that it needs the extra words to reinforce the point – because green, or at least green energy, is now mainstream in Germany.

Salomon, who was born in Melbourne but moved back to Germany with his family at the age of 3, has been mayor of this city of 220,000 people at the edge of the Black Forest since 2002. And in many ways, the story of Freiburg and its attitude to renewables, energy, and sustainability, is a microcosm of what is now occurring in the broader economy.

It goes back to the 1970s, when an unlikely coalition of farmers — many of them wine makers, academics and students — forced the state government to cancel plans for a new nuclear power plant at Wyhl, just 25kms north of the city. It was a ferocious battle (see a video here), culminating in a showdown that attracted a rally of 50,000 people. It remains, Salomon says, the only nuclear power plant that has been successfully prevented from going ahead, even thought the country has now committed to closing all by 2022.


Dieter Salomon, the Australian-born mayor of Freiburg

“The prime minister of the state (of Baden-Württemberg), told us we were crazy and said that we don’t build this plant the lights will go off,” Salomon says in his offices in the heart of the Medieval old quarter of the city. “That was 40 years ago, people still remember that comment because the lights haven’t gone off.”

More than a decade later, the “crazy” accusation was levelled at the city again, this time by the local newspaper when the council decided, six weeks after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, to install a long-term program to wean the city off nuclear and fossil fuels, and into renewables, energy saving, and energy efficiency.

“They told us it was a crazy decision,” Salomon says. Despite preventing a new power station, the local utility still relied on nuclear for 90 per cent of its electricity needs. “They told us it was not possible.” Now, the local utility contracts almost all its outside needs from hydro-electric sources in Austria.


The Solar Ship in Freiburg

Freiburg argues that it earns its “Green City” sobriquet from that initial spirit of defiance against nuclear and its subsequent focus on innovation, and sustainability.

It boasts a carbon neutral quarter known as Quartier Vauban, where in some sections the citizens voted against the use of cars; the “Solar City” and “Sun Ship” (pictured right), a residential area that features “energy plus” housing, meaning the houses and adjoining commercial buildings produce more solar electricity than they consume during the year.

There is the famous “Heliotrop”, a unique circular home that rotates so that its massive solar PV array and solar thermal collectors can follow the sun. (See video here).

The town has more than 100 “passive houses”, has retrofitted a high-rise residential building to “passive house” status (see another video here); and new homes have a requirement that restricts the consumption of heating oil to 1.5 litres per square metre per year. That compares to the average consumption of 30 litres/sqm/year a decade ago. Space heating in Germany consumes twice as much energy as electricity.

New housing projects are not begun until a tram line is built. The city estimates that 30 per cent of journeys are done by public transport and 27 per cent by bicycle. Car movements account for just 30 per cent of movements within the city. It is building three new tram lines to ensure that every home is within 500m of public transport.

Freiburg has also become a hub of innovation and industry. I lunched at Solar Fabrik, the first carbon-neutral solar module manufacturing facility. The city is also the home of numerous research facilities, most notably the Fraunhofer Institute for Sustainable Energy, which has grown from 60 people to more than 1,300, and is the second largest solar research institute in the world.

“Freiburg was quite different from rest of Republic,” Salomon says. “They thought we were the crazy guys from the Upper Rhine Valley. But now it is mainstream.” But, he concedes, “a lot of people complain that we don’t do enough, that what we have done is nothing, that we have to do more.”

Indeed, despite its credentials, Freiburg now trails other cities in the deployment of renewables. It gave itself what seems to be a modest target of generating 10 per cent of its own electricity needs through renewables by 2010, but came up well short.

freiburg windIt has six turbines on the hills overlooking the town, and solar PV on the stadium, and virtually every other public building that can support it, as well as many private homes. But it still only generates 6% of its own electricity needs through these means. Despite being in the sunniest region in Germany, there is just not that much wind and sun to go power the city within the narrow boundaries of the city, and few biomass or hydro opportunities. About 50 per cent of its energy needs (mostly heat) comes from combined heat and power plants.

Now it has set a target of 100 per cent renewables for the Freiburg region, which includes the surrounding areas that have 650,000 people. It aims to do this by 2050. It will use the open spaces and resources of the surrounding areas for more wind turbines and solar farms, biomass plants and run-of-river hydro. And, Salomon hopes, geothermal. (Some smaller towns scoff at such targets, saying that they have already reached 100 per cent renewables, or even more, in some villages. The region of Emmendingen, which forms part of Freiburg and has 25,000 people, aims to be 100 per cent renewable by 2030).

The Green Conundrum: Fundies vs Realos

Salomon was elected mayor in 2002 – the first Green mayor of a large city in Germany — and re-elected in 2010 (they have eight-year terms). He’s what is knows an a “Realo”, as opposed to a “Fundie”, or fundamental Green that refuse the corridors of power.

It’s been a battle that has raged with the Green Party since it was founded more than three decades ago. The Green Party shared power with the Social Democrats in Berlin a decade ago, and the same arrangement is in place in Badem-Wurrtemburg, where Freiburg is located. The state’s capital, Stuttgart, also has a green mayor.

But in the federal level, the Greens have snubbed the opportunity of forming a Coalition with Angela Merkel, despite being the first party approached. Some say it is because the Fundies rule again in Berlin, others say it is because the centre-right has stolen its thunder by rejecting nuclear and supporting renewables. Still, others are frustrated that the Greens are not sharing power, because the energy transition would likely be quicker than with a centre right/centre left coalition.

For Salomon though, being Green and in government is “quite normal”. “When I was re-elected 3 years ago, I represented the mainstream of Freiburg.”

He says he needs to be a “realo” in more ways than one, because his party has just 13 out of 48 councillors. There are 10 parties represented to the council. “I have to have majority support in the council or I cannot govern,” he says.

Salomon is confident that the Energiewende – the national energy transition that will see it phase out nuclear altogether by 2022 and become a nation predominantly powered by renewables — will succeed.  This is despite a lot of vested interests trying to make political capital out of rising electricity prices.

“A lot of countries are looking at Germany,” Salomon says. Some of them don’t want us to reach our targets, others are hoping that we do. When it works in Germany, a lot of other countries are going to copy it.

“I know some countries think we are crazy, including the British. But now they are building new nuclear power plants with the French and the Chinese. The money they guarantee for every kilowatt hour is more than we pay for solar. Now, that is really crazy.”

See also our story Should Australian communities buy back their grids, which traces the history of Schönau, which was the first village to do so in Germany. 

(Thanks to Craig Morris, a Freiburg based journalist who writes the Energy Transition blog (, for allowing us to share some of his videos. More will be featured in our other stories. They can be found here).

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

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About the Author

is the founding editor of, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon, and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia's energy grid with great interest.

  • centefire

    A lot of countries are looking at Germany Solomon says. They are and saying “there but for the grace of god go !”

  • centefire

    While his green dream is being achieved in his town, his government have opened 17 coal powered generation plants and plan to open 10 more. What he means is he is getting subsidies for wind turbines that don’t do anything but drive up costs. Industry is moving out Then again the Germans were always easily fooled.

  • With family in Germany, it is amazing to see the progress year after year. More countries need to follow their lead to move the world into a sustainable, green future.

  • Steeple

    The prior German national leaders sold the Germans down the river to Gazprom. Gerard Schroeder serving as a Gazprom board member almost borders on traitorous.

    It’s great to see local leadership solve the problems caused at the Federal level.

  • mythikal

    Green progress in Germany. Sounds just great. Green progress in the US? Don’t make me laugh.

  • Senlac

    It’s sad these countries have learned nothing from Japan. There may be a future with nuclear, , but not light water reactors. But it will take 5 years to get a new brine (salt water) reactor design approved. Guess they just can’t wait.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Thorium, brine and all those tweaks won’t make nuclear power cheap enough to be a player.

      Time we put nuclear aside like we did coal powered steamships.

      • Senlac

        I don’t disagree, but what about all that nuclear waste/fuel. It’s only waste because light water reactors can’t use it in it’s current form. The brine reactors can reduce nuclear waste without the need for any more fuel. Killing two birds with one stone. Don’t need to cool it with water, and claimed to be a lot saver. If those facts are indeed true. Then those kind of reactors are worth a hard look. At least until we solve the waste problem. Of which there is plenty sitting around in tanks with nowhere to go. That is a huge risk.

        • Bob_Wallace

          There’s simply a vast cost difference between nuclear and renewable energy. It would take extreme cost reduction to make nuclear competitive.

          If it was possible to whittle the current 16c/kWh down to 12c or even 10c nuclear would still not be competitive.

          • Senlac

            Bob, the whole idea is to reduce the costs/risks with a different reactor. A lot of the cost is safety precautions and insurance etc… What about the costs of maintaining waste storage year after year. There is a cost to doing nothing about the waste. An environmental disaster like Japan in the US is not something I want to think about.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I don’t think you’re focusing on the amount of cost reduction that would be required to make nuclear competitive.

            The best price we have for new nuclear generation is 16c/kWh. Onshore wind in the US is around 5c/kWh. Solar in the US has dropped to the 5c -8c/kWh range.

            Those are 2x, 3x differences. Massive.

            We can avoid increasing the waste problem by simply not creating any more. We can avoid creating further Japanese-like disasters by building no more reactors.

            This is an easy concept to grasp if you allow yourself to do so.

            Avoid radioactive waste and nuclear dangers by simply abandoning nuclear energy.

            Save money by avoiding any further nuclear builds, put the money into renewables.

          • Senlac

            Bob, you can’t avoid the waste problem that is already exists sitting in vats of water, an accident waiting to happen, if you allow yourself to grasp that! The safer reactors will significantly decrease the amount of this waste, reducing it’s radioactively and it’s mass as it is consumed. These reactors need no fuel, are far safer and less expensive, 1.7 bil verse 7 bill for a 500 MW (their figures). I’m not saying it a perfect solution, but we need to look at the big picture and find solutions which are the best for the environment and also cost effective. I’m all for renewables, but I am not closed minded about other sensible alternatives.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Nuclear is simply not cost effective.

            Breeder reactors use liquid sodium for cooling. Breeder reactors builds to date have not been successful. If breeder reactors solved our used nuclear fuel problems we would have built one and be using it.

            You should read about breeder reactors.


          • Senlac

            Bob, I’m growing tired of this. You should read their web site. Brine reactors are not Breeder reactors. This is a whole new ball game. I am well aware of the problems of Breeder reactors, these reactors have given us all that waste we don’t know what to do with.

            Web Site …read


          • Bob_Wallace

            It certainly didn’t take long to read that.

            You found a site that has one page of claims. They’ve never built a reactor.

            When their technology is demonstrated, if it ever is, then we can consider it.

          • Senlac

            It takes 5 years to get a new design approved through the government, and it is more than one page 🙂 Sure hope you looked at the TED talk. They are fun to listen too. Time will tell.

          • Bob_Wallace

            (One page of idea description.)

            I could make a web page, a YouTube video, and give a TED talk about how we could power the world with unicorn farts but that would not be proof that we could actually power the world with unicorn farts.

            Remember pebble bed reactors? Remember how they were the answer for safe reactors?

            Remember how no one was able to make them work well enough to be usable?

            Now, even if these people could make their idea work there is no indication that the power produced would be affordable. Reactors continue to be very large, complex pieces of machinery that take a long time to build. They cost a lot to build and a lot to finance. They are not cheap to operate.

            Some argue that we could build small modular reactors and save money. But others who have studied the idea find that SMRs are likely to be more expensive per unit electricity produced.

            Making a few dozen would not create any meaningful economy of scale cost reduction.

            Making a lot of small reactors rather than a large one creates redundancies which drive up both building and operating expenses. With nuclear energy large is cheaper.

            If, at some point down the road, someone builds a reactor that produces electricity significantly cheaper than renewables we should take a look at it. We should weigh any safety issues it brings to our world against any savings in electricity price it might offer.

            At this time nuclear energy is 2x, 3x more expensive than wind and solar and their prices continue to fall.

          • centefire

            In a few years time you will be able to buy a reactor to generate electricity in Aldi and bring it home in the booth of the car

  • Matthew

    Building a nuclear power plant and spending more on electricity than one does on solar right now is the definition of stupid.

    • centefire

      Dead right. Better with solar especially at night, is it the German sense of humor? Mark Twain said it is no laughing matter

  • JMin2020

    Thanks for the post Giles. I have to admire Dieter Salomons’ principles. I look forward to conversing with him sometime.

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