Freiburg im Breisgau (Germany), a pioneer sustainable city in Europe

renewable energy, photovoltaic, energy mix, wind, housing, transportation“Green City”, “Solar City”, “Sustainability Capital”: over the course of the last decades, Freiburg im Breisgau has been at the cutting edge of sustainable development. This municipality of the Land of Baden Württemberg, in the south west of Germany, owes its reputation to its assertive policies on the environment, renewable energy sources, housing and transport. Freiburg’s energy transition is considered as a model and is based on three pillars: increasing the share of renewable energy sources, aiming at energy efficiency and encouraging energy savings.

Increasing share of renewables in the local energy mi

As European countries were building nuclear power plants in the 1950s and 1960s to meet the energy needs of their populations (Whyl nuclear plant about 20 km north west of Freiburg ; Fessenheim plant across the French border twenty five km south west), the municipality of Freiburg gradually implemented an assertive environmental policy as early as the 1980s, even more so after the Chernobyl nuclear spill on April 26th 1986. Part of this policy relies on the development of renewable energy sources: biomass, solar energy, wind turbines and hydropower have thus become part of the city’s energy mix.

Biomass in Freiburg relies on methanization, a process which turns organic matter into biogas. The methanization plant at the edge of the city is fed with separately collected organic waste (36,000 tons per year) provided by inhabitants (kitchen and garden waste). The resulting biogas can be used as complement to other energy sources and replace fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Lately, the big biomass plant on Tullastrasse and the smaller plant in the Vauban neighbourhood produced 7.3 million kWh, which corresponds to 0.7% of the cities electricity needs.

Despite weak irradiation levels (50% less than in the south of France), solar energy has been largely implemented in Freiburg since the 1990s, making the city a world model. Solar energy is harnessed by photovoltaic cells and converted into electricity. It can also be used to heat buildings. Since 2008, the city’s roofs have been covered with 10 MW worth of photovoltaic panels, which generate 10 million kWh per year, covering the consumption of 4,000 small households. Out of one billion kWh used every year by the city, solar energy represents 3% of private power consumption.

Freiburg’s energy mix includes other renewable energy sources. The six wind turbines built in 2003 on Mount Rosskopt produced 12.9 million kWh in 2007, i.e. 1.29% of the city’s energy needs. Hydropower plants around Freiburg account for 1.8 million kWh per year, i.e. 0.17% of overall power consumption.

However, in spite of those efforts, the share of renewable energy sources in the local energy mix remain low (barely 5% of overall power consumption). As a matter of fact, Freiburg owes its pioneer status in sustainable development to its urban ecology policy.

Sustainable city planning and energy efficiency

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, demand for new housing was very high. In meeting that demand, the municipality of Freiburg chose to avoid urban sprawl and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To that end, it created two new neighbourhoods which are still growing today: Vauban (5,000 inhabitants) and Rieselfeld (10,000 inhabitants).

Built between 1995 and 2006 three kilometres away from the city-centre on a 38-hectare parcel, the Vauban neighbourhood’s urban ecology relies on the strong involvement of its inhabitants through a number of Baugruppen, “construction groups” which were set up to establish neighbourly relations prior to the building of housing. Those groups took advantage of economies of scale to cut construction costs and reduced expenses through the common use of equipment, such as solar energy supply, heating or gardens. Particular focus on thermal bridges prevented cold outside air from penetrating inside buildings. Often times, light cogeneration installations provide a backup heating system to groups of 4 to 5 homes. Such economic housing yields energy savings of about 20%. Besides, these self-run collective housing projects enabled an optimal use of urban space: areas traditionally meant for cars were drastically reduced to give way to small green plots between buildings for children leisure and interaction between inhabitants.

Started in 2004 on a 70-hectare parcel, the Rieselfeld neighbourhood emulates many of the features of the Vauban area (housing clusters surrounded by courtyards, parks, leisure areas and common equipment, narrow streets with 30 km/h speed limit, urban runoff waters feeding a stream and the water table, etc.). Its 4,800 buildings, home over 10,000 inhabitants, were especially designed for low energy consumption (65 kWh/ m²/year) thanks to a centralized heating system fed by a cogeneration plant (power and hear) partly relying on solar energy. Furthermore, Rieselfeld attracted poor households who couldn’t afford living in the overcrowded city-centre by devoting 50% of its buildings to social housing.

Another reason why Vauban and Rieselfeld are models of eco-neighbourhoods is that they are part of Freiburg’s global urban strategy, especially when it comes to transportation.

Low-energy transport policy

The municipality of Freiburg implemented a low-energy transport policy at an early stage by defining five pillars: encouraging cycling, reducing traffic and noise pollution, developing public transportation, providing parking space at the edge of pedestrian areas and better channelling car traffic. Freiburg is thus one of the first cities to ban cars from the city-centre as early as the 1960s.      Specific areas are devoted to each mode of transport: pedestrian streets, bicycle lanes (nearly 500 km), traffic corridors for buses, tramways and individual motor vehicles. Among the use of means of transport in Freiburg from 1982 to 1999, public transport has gone from 11% to 18%, while cycling has increased from 15% to 26%. Over the same period, the volume of motorized traffic has gone down from 38% to 32%. Despite the increase in the number of cars on the streets, the number of daily car trips has remained stable. Generally, almost 70% of city mobility is by foot, on a bike or in public transport.

Last but not least, an estimated 10,000 jobs were created in the environment sector, be it in the industry, tourism or training.

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