Repowering Communities case study: Freiburg

Freiburg has a well-deserved reputation as Germany’s green capital. It has branded itself as ‘Germany’s Solar Region’, promoting energy efficiency, CHP and solar PV and thermal. It has already reduced its per capita carbon emissions by more than 20% since 1990, so the EU’s target, a 20% reduction by 2020, was met in Freiburg ten years early. It also uses only about half of the energy that other European cities of 200,000 people do.

This has been achieved mainly through changes in energy supply, but the council has also been progressive on transport. Since Freiburg council first outlined its green vision in 1986, there has been a doubling of public transport use. Over a third of residents choose not to have a car. This is partly because it is a university town, so many residents are young and very capable of cycling. However, some sensible planning has also helped. For example, instead of making cyclists cycle round one roundabout, dodging the traffic, the planners built a cycle bridge straight across it. The city now has over 500km of bicycle paths and a third of all journeys are by bicycle. The main railway station has parking for 1,000 bicycles.

National policy

The German federal government has introduced strong laws promoting energy efficiency and renewables. Its building regulations for new buildings are high and, when an existing property is substantially renovated, the higher efficiency standards have to be met. (These regulations are well enforced in Germany by regional and local governments. In many other countries, the regulations are OK on paper, but widely ignored.)

The feed-in tariff rate is set nationally. Germany has had a high feed in tariff for renewables, particularly high for solar PV – 45 cents a kilowatt hour (compared to a standard electricity rate of 15 to 20 cents) The high rate is guaranteed for 20 years, making PV very profitable for homeowners.

Under its “100,000 Rooftops Solar Power Programme”, the German government provided subsidised loans until June 2003, when the programme expired.

Freiburg timetable

1986.  “Green vision”.

1992.  Freiburg council required all new buildings to be low-energy, with a maximum energy demand of 65kWh per m2 per year. The city also mandated that all public buildings and facilities should have PV.

1996.  City council resolution, the Climate Protection Concept, to reduce CO2 emissions to 25% below the 1992 level by 2010. (This will not be met, but emissions have reduced by 20%.)

2007.  New target: to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030.

Energy efficiency

All new buildings in Freiburg must meet a low-energy efficiency design standard that uses two thirds of the nationally permitted limit. Houses cost about 3% more to build, but their energy costs and CO2 emissions fall by 30%.

Builders are also obliged to implement the most sustainable form of the energy concept in so far as costs are limited to a maximum of 10% more than a standard variant:

The city of Freiburg is aware of its function as a role model: since 2008, municipal buildings as well as new developments of the municipal building society have to be built according to passive house standards.

(See Climate Neutral Network: Freiburg.)

There is a support programme for home insulation and retrofits, in this case to meet the nationally set standard.


In addition to the national feed in tariff, the regional power supply company, Badenova – jointly owned by a number of regional municipalities and a natural gas company – offers a solar investment subsidy of about €300 for customers who want to install photovoltaic panels. The programme is financed by customers who chose to pay a 1.5% higher tariff to support PV, biomass and small hydropower.

The council provides a solar information desk in central Freiburg. In 2009, it launched FREESUN, an internet based tool to give information on which roofs are suitable for PV.


Freiburg’s emissions from energy reduced by 16% between 1992 and 2007, and its emissions from transport by almost 5%.

The majority of the reductions have come from co-generation. Almost half of the City’s electricity is supplied from CHP plants. There is one large one, Rhodia, running on gas, and several smaller ones, which use gas (some of it captured from landfills) or wood chips. Rhodia’s heat is used in the chemical industry.

Freiburg actually gets less of its electricity from renewables than Germany does overall. It gets around 4%, whereas Germany gets over 15%. This is because Freiburg has no major hydro-power facilities. There has also not been a great deal of wind farm development.

However, Freiburg has become a world leader in solar PV. It is in one of Germany’s sunniest regions, with 1800 hours of sunshine a year – almost five hours a day, on average. By 2008, it had some 1,000 individual photovoltaics, a total installed capacity of 15MW. There is also 15,000m2 of solar thermal collectors.

High-profile buildings have been used to spread the message. Thirty five out of the 70 municipal schools had PV; some also have solar thermal water heating. Freiburg football club had the world’s first football stadium with solar equipment – a large solar PV array on its roof and 60m2 of thermal collectors for showers, providing 60% of the hot water. The Central Station has a solar PV facade that is 19 floors tall, with 240 solar modules.

A tenth of Badenova’s customers have chosen to pay the higher tariff, providing subsidies of over €500,000 a year. Most of this is spent providing the €300 subsidy.

Freiburg is now an exporter of solar technology. Solar-Fabrik, a solar module production plant, built a factory there in 1997, employing 130 people. The factory is ‘zero emissions’, being powered by 570 square metres of PV, and a rape seed oil-fired combined heat and power plant:

In the sector of the solar industries alone, employment and company figures are at about 700 people employed and approx. 80 companies, respectively, which is four to five times above national average.

(See Climate Neutral Network: Freiburg.)

‘Eco-neighborhoods’ Vauban and Rieselfeld have been built. The buildings consume 30% of the energy that other “green” buildings do and 65% of their energy comes from renewables, particularly solar. Vauban is built on a 38 hectare site, which used to be military barracks. It has around 5,000 residents in about 2000 units. It is connected to Freiburg by light-rail and about 40% of residents have no car. Those who own a car have to park it at the edge of Vauban. This does little to help the climate, but a lot to improve the peace and pleasure of living there. It has 50 super-efficient ‘solar houses’ – these produce more energy than they consume.

Freiburg introduced a low-cost flat-rate monthly “Environment ticket” for the region-wide bus service in 1991, and there has been a 100% increase in people using public transport since 1980.

Public opinion

During the second world war, 80% of the old city was destroyed by bombs, but most has been rebuilt in the historical style. Therefore, Freiburg could have had problems with the conservation lobby, who often oppose solar panels, and even double glazing. However, in the 1970s, the region of Baden-Württemberg planned to build a nuclear power plant 30km from Freiburg. There was a major protest, with widespread civil disobedience, and in 1975 the plans were defeated. This made residents very active and aware of energy issues, but also meant that the region needed different future energy plans.

There is no serious disagreement among councillors and Freiburg has been strong on consultation and public involvement (which is almost always better in Germany than in other countries):

Consensus among the City Council that local climate protection is a local responsibility and priority has helped to ensure continued financial support and strengthened the overall implementation process. Throughout this process transparency of plans and the involvement of local citizens, politicians and the business sector have been essential factors in the Action Plan’s development and implementation.

(See Climate Neutral Network: Freiburg.)

There has been little opposition to PV. However, PV alone cannot meet Freiburg’s renewables target:

Freiburg’s goal is to decrease nuclear’s influence, and increase the energy from renewables to 10% by 2010. This can not be achieved by PV, so the city is looking at obtaining more energy from biomass from Black Forest woodchips, and from wind power, which is generating a very heated debate, due to concerns that the turbines will spoil the Black Forest scenery. Six 1.8 MW turbines were erected in 2003, increasing the energy from renewables to 3.9%, but there is a court injunction against two of them. There are also plans to explore geothermal deep heat, which is very good in the Upper Rhine area around Freiburg.

(See Solar Region Freiburg: Freiburg Solar City.)

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