Greetings from… Your Brightest Possible Future
It’s a real pity, Gesine Bänfer wanted us to know, that we couldn’t have visited her daughter’s kindergarten at the end of last week. This scene was fine and all, she conceded: The building a low-slung, primary-coloured series of attached, self-contained classroom units, each with its own patio and garden, like a row of holiday condos. Vines hanging from trellises for shade. The sloped roof tiled in solar panels. A communal cob oven out here in the rear courtyard where the kids learn to bake. Gleeful German five-year-olds streaming out the main entrance—there was Gesine’s daughter Stevie now—and onto automobile-free streets, strolling toward their ultra-efficient, mostly solar-heated homes, there to munch on exquisite Brötchen from the neighbourhood bakery and continue the process, evidently already under way, of evolution onto a higher plane of existence.
Sure. Ja. Sehr gut. This is Vauban, after all, where Time magazine named each of the 5,000 residents a 2009 Hero of the Environment. They earned the laurel for the simple virtue of living in gentle, enlightened harmony with the earth in this extraordinary suburb, which was erected over the past decade on the ruins of a Cold War French military base on the outskirts of the storied Black Forest city of Freiburg. And so, yes, there is much here to delight in. There is Gesine, and there is her English-bred partner Ian Harrison and their three lovely preteen girls, and there is the music Ian and Gesine make together on medieval instruments by way of a career. There is their cozy Passivhaus, a marvel of solar heat retention that, like every other dwelling in Vauban, requires no more than 30 percent of the usual energy budget for a German home. There’s the general store around the corner, just a couple of years old but already the bustling hub of the community—“the spider in the web,” Ian calls it with offhand, Vaubanesque pride—and the frequent trams gliding quietly through on tracks covered in lush grass. There is the Wagenburg squatter community, sewn seamlessly into the social fabric along with students in hyper-efficient apartments over here, seniors in ultra-accessible ones over there, and artists and designers and craftspeople in studio spaces around the way. There are the wide, ample biking and walking paths, the communal play areas, the little copses of forest primeval here and there with tree housesand swings built right in, and the chicken coop next to the district heating facility, where your kids can learn how to handle live poultry, and you can leave fifty enlightened post-national euro cents if you need an egg.
Yes, there is this whole Vauban scene, as if some Teutonic wizard had ransacked the dreams of every idealistic urban planner in the free world and stitched together all the bits and pieces of walkable, mid-rise, mixed-use, transit-friendly, eco-conscious design in the lee of a Black Forest hillside as the setting for a fairy tale called Little Green Riding Hood Rescues Hansel & Gretel and They All Flee the Dark Forest to Live Together in Solar-Powered Social-Democratic Harmony So Luminous It Convinces the Wolf to Self-Domesticate and Form a Limited Partnership with the Witch to Provide Efficiency Retrofits at Reasonable Prices. Yes, yes. All that. Lovely. Wunderbar.
But you see, Gesine told my wife and me, if we’d come at the end of last week—well, the kids were harvesting and cooking the potatoes they’d grown for themselves. And wouldn’t that have been, you know, double-plus lovely? Superwunderbar?
I know this part of Germany. Or I thought I did. My father, a fighter pilot in the Canadian Air Force, was posted to southwestern Germany in the early 1990s—first at cfb Baden-Soellingen, the Canadian base an hour up the Autobahn from here, then a bit farther north, at the mammoth US base at Ramstein, for a nato job. I worked summers and spent my holidays in the region as an undergrad, gawking at Gothic cathedrals and drinking Glühwein in the Christmas markets.
Those bases were fully steeped in the folklore of the postwar Pax Americana, thickened in those days with the giddy first flush of fallen–Iron Curtain victory. Freiburg was a pleasant day trip, a museum piece full of winding cobblestone laneways from which to peruse medieval battlements. Germany in general was a pair of mangled orphan twins still learning to walk again after the horrific excesses of their deranged parents, Nazi and Communist alike. There were variations on the theme farther afield. Spain was a charmingly underdeveloped backwater, just beginning to recover from its own escape from the fascist boot. France was a theme park with union problems. Italy was a theme park with management problems. Scandinavia was a tidy but rather glum branch plant of the emerging global economy, specializing in safe cars and disposable college apartment furniture. And who knew how long it’d be before anything east of the Elbe resembled modernity? These were fine old countries, sure, picturesque on the front of a postcard, but it was North America that was going to lead the way—culturally, politically, and industrially—out of Europe’s dark century.
On the edge of the main residential area at cfb Baden-Soellingen stood a small retail strip with a German-style café-bar above it—the preferred hangout for Canadian teenagers. I was a regular there in the summer of 1992, occasionally finding myself amid a table or two of young labourers recently arrived from the collapsed gdr. They favoured denim jackets and heavy metal T-shirts, and between our fragmented German and their fumbling English we figured out that they liked the place because it was so Western—by which they evidently meant non-European. North American. The next frontier.
Our conversations were inevitably disjointed and pilsner hazed, but what I remember is that every one of those East Germans had vague ambitions of emigrating to America, and that when you asked them why, they described a place that sounded like a Coca-Cola ad randomly spliced with clips from rock videos and action movies. I remember even more clearly the sense of offhand pride I felt at living out someone else’s fantasy. They kind of wanted to be me. It was intoxicating.
Not twenty years later, I stood in the courtyard of the kindergarten in Vauban and felt something akin to vertigo at the dramatic inversion of roles. I also felt something I’d never experienced in Germany: naked envy. Worse than that—I felt deprived. Underprivileged. Needy. If only my kids could look forward to attending a school this lavish in its amenities, this thoughtful in its design, this enlightened and new. I felt a little bit like some miserable wretch on the deck of an old immigrant steamer, wrapped in a tattered blanket against the maritime chill, gazing in wonder at the New York skyline.
It wasn’t just the solar-tiled, potato-farmed kindergarten. I could expand my purview in concentric circles of awe: from Vauban to Freiburg, overseen by the first Green Party mayor of a major German municipality; from the municipal government to the federal, which passed the world’s most ambitious renewable energy legislation in Berlin’s revamped Reichstag (it now produces more energy than it consumes, thanks to a Norman Foster retrofit); and from there to western Europe as a whole. A great chain of innovation stretching from Scandinavia to the south of Spain, ultimately encompassing all the essential infrastructure of our brightest possible future.
If you accept the premise (and I do, as basically all of Europe does, despite the diversionary tactics of an intransigent chattering class here in North America that would have us believe a poorly worded email or two negates a hundred years of scientific inquiry since the greenhouse effect was first detected) that beating climate change and ending fossil fuel dependency together represent the defining challenge of the twenty-first century, then its first, tumultuous decade gives every indication that the innovations needed to overcome that challenge will happen in Europe. After a century as Western Civilization’s primary battleground and museum of antiquities, Europe has again become its pace-setting think tank and laboratory.
Greetings from… The New Grand Tour
Starting in the late 1600s, a Grand Tour of European culture was an essential part of a young English aristocrat’s education. The Enlightenment had come late to Britain, and the country’s universities were falling into near-obsolescence. (Christ’s College at Cambridge, for example, which would in time educate Charles Darwin, admitted only three freshmen in 1733.) And so the Grand Tour was undertaken in lieu of better schooling at home. A proper gentleman completed his education by taking in the sights of Paris and Rome and Venice, perhaps stopping on the return journey in Vicenza to admire Palladio’s villas, and in Geneva to bask in the brilliant gaze of Voltaire or Rousseau.
The emphasis, however, was primarily on Italy’s ancient ruins. “The Classical heritage,” writes Grand Tour historian Roger Hudson, “was Civilization, to all intents and purposes.” Notwithstanding such earnest goals, the Grand Tour was as much about oat sowing (in legendarily debauched Venice, in particular) as edification, and for many gentlemen-in-training the ultimate goal was simply to return to England exhausted by travel and Continental peculiarities, and fully prepared to conform to the tidy norms of home—“to make them see,” as one aristocratic matron put it, “that nothing is so agreeable as England.” In time, the English gents were joined by upstart American boys—the White House and US Capitol building were inspired by architect Benjamin Latrobe’s Grand Tour study of Palladio’s work—and by the mid-nineteenth century the first mass-market tourists had codified many of the Grand Tour’s biases into guide-book dogma.
I’d expected from the outset that my European journey would be a different kind of tour. I’d come with my wife and two kids for the express purpose of documenting something new: the development of a sustainable industrial order. I planned to interrogate a great many technocrats on the construction of solar plants and the reconfiguration of electricity grids, while my wife anticipated wrestling with how to take uncommon pictures of wind turbines. We didn’t count on Vauban’s enviable kindergarten, but by then, around the midpoint of our trip, we’d come to realize we were witnessing something much deeper and more significant than a gallery of new and improved Continental mousetraps—something that couldn’t be counted entirely in kilowatt hours or tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted. We’d found ourselves traversing the vanguard of Europe’s Green Enlightenment on a new kind of Grand Tour.
The Rousseau of this new Tour turned out to be Hermann Scheer, co-author and global champion of Germany’s renewable energy law (passed in 2000, and since copied by governments across Europe and, most recently, in Ontario), and to my mind the single most important progressive politician alive today. “This is a structural change,” he told me, “and each structural change leads to new winners and old losers.” He was referring specifically to the change from non-renewable to renewable energy, predicated as it is on a shift from scarce and expensive primary fuels like oil, coal, and uranium to free and ubiquitous fuel sources like the sun and wind; and from centralized, oligarchical control to a highly decentralized energy regime. But really he could have meant the whole greenward Continental drift. This wasn’t the swapping of one energy source or even one industrial base for another; this was the weaving of a whole new socio-economic fabric. And the real purpose of the New Grand Tour was to gawk at its marvellous texture and design.
Greetings from… The Most Livable City in the World
Quality of life”—“livability,” for short—is a highly subjective term. What qualities? Whose life? Measured how? In any case, Denmark and its elegant capital, Copenhagen, frequently win international rankings of such matters. The Danes topped two recent surveys of the world’s happiest people, for example, and Copenhagen has placed either first or second on the last three worldwide Most Livable City lists published by the jet-setting British magazine Monocle. To these, I would add a singular measure by which the city has revealed itself to be an oasis of livability nonpareil: preschooler jet lag.
Copenhagen was the first port of call on our New Grand Tour, and I arrived with my four-year-old daughter a few days ahead of my wife and infant son, thus to squeeze in a trip to Legoland ahead of the working part of the working holiday. To land in a foreign capital with a four-year-old after twenty hours in transit is a bit like waking up half-drunk behind the wheel of a moving backhoe with a jug of nitroglycerine precariously balanced in the scoop.
Fortunately, Copenhagen’s airport is about as user friendly as they come. There are not just complimentary carts for carry-on bags, but complimentary strollers. There is lots of soothing blond wood, and everyone’s English is better than yours. Both the metro and the regional train network have platforms and ticket kiosks right in the terminal. And as I learned first-hand, it doesn’t matter if you buy a ticket for the wrong one while you’re corralling your ticking time bomb of a daughter, because it’s valid on either system.
We’d rented a flat near the main train station through a Craigslist ad, and perhaps owing to inflated world’s-most-livable-city standards the place had been significantly undersold. It was bigger, better furnished, and more centrally located than advertised. The owner had mentioned in passing that there was “a playground nearby,” by which she meant that the north wall of her apartment block, formed by the ramparts of the old royal shooting gallery, had been converted into the best urban jungle gym my daughter had ever seen. It had a zipline swing on fifty feet of wire, a giant sandbox, a towering rope pyramid, a wading pool. And on weekdays, a team of caregivers ran indoor and outdoor enhancement activities out of a small shed. Free of charge. With considerable flair.
The day after our arrival, we passed a long, lazy morning at the playground. The jet-lagged preschooler, however, is a capricious creature, even by the formidable standards of four-year-olds in general, and the question of how to make it through the afternoon loomed over the proceedings. I didn’t want to travel far, for fear of agitating my daughter with monotony, and I didn’t want to pay a Scandinavian-priced admission fee for anything one or the other of us would be too tired to see through. We were without toys or comprehensible TV. What to do? Copenhagen’s livability, I knew, was predicated in part on it being one of the most pedestrian-friendly metropolises on the planet. So we simply walked. And it was magic.
Livability, it turns out, is a broad, car-free plaza in front of city hall, crowded on this day, serendipitously, by singing, dancing Chilean soccer fans. (My daughter was reasonably sure this was a show being staged for her benefit.) Livability is the movable feast of the Strøget, central Copenhagen’s high street, which first cleared its cobblestones of automobiles in 1962, in time becoming the backbone of a network of pedestrian-only avenues and lanes billed as Europe’s most extensive. Livability is a passing parade of street performers and ice cream vendors, tidy squares every few hundred metres with a fountain to climb on or a broad expanse to chase pigeons across. Livability is the temporary exhibition (yet more serendipity) set up in one of those squares, an assortment of multicoloured shipping containers retrofitted as miniature performance spaces. Livability is your four-year-old sitting for fifteen minutes in preternaturally still concentration inside one of these spaces, listening to a Danish guitar virtuoso play some enchanting baroque composition. (Free of charge. With considerable flair.) Livability is a great old ship’s anchor that doubles effortlessly as a climbing gym—this mounted at the head of Nyhavn, the row of cafés housed in old candy-hued warehouses along Copenhagen’s waterfront, which serves as the exclamation point at theStrøget’s terminus.
Livability is a jet-lagged parent in the heart of a busy foreign city, able to relax entirely even as the preschooler darts deliriously ahead, because it is a gentle, sunny afternoon, and there are no fast-moving, thousand-pound steel boxes to watch out for. Livability, yes, is the space to effortlessly create a yawning afternoon’s worth of serendipity.
“It’s hardly a coincidence that the number one amendment to the American Constitution emphasizes the right to free speech and to peaceful gathering with your fellow citizens. That is one of the strongest expressions of the importance of the public space.” This was Jan Gehl, professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and chief disseminator of the Copenhagen approach to urban design worldwide, speaking with me the following week. If Hermann Scheer is the Green Enlightenment’s Rousseau, then Gehl is its genial, Danish Voltaire, his consulting firm hired by cities worldwide—from Barcelona to Oslo, from Melbourne to New York—to teach them how to escape the antiquated shackles of modernist city planning and car-centred urban design and become more like Copenhagen.
Gehl believes urban public space is the lifeblood of democracy, the essence of humanism, and the sine qua non of green-minded livability. “Throughout history,” he told me, “public space had three functions: it’s been the meeting place and the marketplace and the connection space. And what has happened in most cities is that we forgot about the meeting place, we moved the market space to somewhere else, and then we filled all the streets with connection, as if connection was the number one goal in city planning, in public space.” What he means is that we replaced public squares with parking lots, enclosed and privatized our marketplaces as shopping malls, and then turned over our streets almost exclusively to rapid transportation by private vehicle. In so doing, we enslaved ourselves to oil, choked ourselves on exhaust, and shattered into a million fragments the public realm where civil society once flourished.
Copenhagen’s great lesson for the New Grand Tourist is that the essential first step, maybe the only critical one, in reassembling these shards and building the urban foundation of the Green Enlightenment is to put people ahead of their cars and public spaces ahead of private ones in the planning priorities of the city—of any city. It is so deceptively simple, so modest, that it can seem insufficient to the task. Surely something more ambitious and august is required, some monumental summit or epochal declaration. This, in any case, was the goal of the world’s purported leadership when they descended on a conference hall on Copenhagen’s fringe a few months after my meeting with Gehl, there to argue with awesomely ineffectual ostentation about how to avoid the collapse of civilization at the hands of climate change. They’d have done better, really, if they’d just rented bicycles and re-enacted Jan Gehl’s forty-fifth wedding anniversary.
Gehl: “My wife and I, in our early seventies, we did our twenty kilometres through the city, through all of the nice places in the city—on our bikes, in leisurely tempo and a good style, on safe bicycle lanes—and had a wonderful dinner at an outdoor café. Which was one of 7,000 outdoor seats. And all the bicycle lanes and all the outdoor eating has happened while we were married. We could not have done that forty-five years ago.”
My family and I followed Gehl’s lead. We rented bikes from a place called Baisikeli—which naturally uses the revenue to fund an ngo that ships free bikes to urban Africa—and we strapped the kids into the dual seat on the front of the cargo bike in the pair, and we rode. We biked past royal palaces and offshore wind farms, down bustling commercial arteries, and through the forested grounds of Christiania, urban Europe’s last great commune. We stopped to watch the tricks at a skate park along one stretch of newly revitalized harbourfront, and we pulled into a bike shop to contemplate buying a cargo bike of our own.
We biked mostly amid a steady flow of fellow cyclists; 37 percent of the city’s residents and 55 percent of downtown dwellers travel to and from work by bike. And we rode almost exclusively in dedicated bike lanes, which as Canadians we’d come to believe consisted of a stripe of paint on the edge of a busy roadway, or even just a pictograph of a bicycle floating helplessly among parked and idling cars (serving mainly as practice targets for passing motorists). Copenhagen’s bike lanes, by a comparison so stark it makes little sense to use the same term, are flawlessly designed and maintained, with physical barriers such as curbs, medians, and parked cars between them and the motorized traffic, and their own traffic lights at major intersections. Abandoning twenty years of habit, we conformed to local custom and rode without helmets; eventually, we didn’t even bother strapping our daughter into her seat. Never once did I feel any less than the safest I’d ever felt riding a bike in a city. In the years since its main street was first closed to vehicular traffic, Copenhagen has embarked on the construction of probably the best urban biking infrastructure in the world (it wrestles sportingly with Amsterdam for this crown). We navigated it with the same naked envy we encountered again and again on our New Grand Tour.
One fine Copenhagen morning, I set off on my own to meet with Mikael Colville-Andersen, proprietor of several websites documenting biking life in the city, and lately an ad hoc consultant to the flocks of urban planners from around the world who come to study its post-automotive model. We biked together to the broad baroque bridge where Copenhagen’s busiest commuter avenue crosses a canal on its way into the city centre, and parked ourselves on a bench at one end, in front of an led sign that counted bike traffic. There we watched the traffic and Colville-Andersen gave me a sardonic primer on the city’s stylish bike culture.
“Here, the bicycle is a vehicle,” he explained. “It’s a tool. We have 500,000 people who ride every day, and I always say we don’t have any cyclists in Copenhagen. None of them identify themselves as cyclists. They’re just people who are getting around the city in the quickest way.”
As with all the best design, urban design is at its most exemplary when it is mostly invisible, intuitive, inevitable. The road we were watching was the city’s latest and greatest case in point. The reason they’d installed the big led counter here was that the avenue had recently been designated Copenhagen’s first Green Wave artery, its traffic signals timed to provide bike commuters with a journey free of red lights. It’s a commonplace technique, of course—few suburban commutes in North America do without such synched lights—but the choice of priorities is many emissions-free, self-propelled kilometres ahead.
Which reminds me of one of the most striking things about Colville-Andersen: though Danish by heritage, he’s not a Copenhagener by birth. Quite the contrary; his father, like many Danes surveying a continent in ruins in the aftermath of two epic twentieth-century wars, looked west across the Atlantic for his brightest future. He settled eventually in a bustling new temple to the nascent North American car culture: the city of Calgary. Colville-Andersen grew up in an archetypal Canadian suburb just a few kilometres from my own home. All you have to do is look at the guy, though—the stylishly dishevelled hair, the hip shades, the custom cargo bike—to know you’re in the company of someone who likes to be at the leading edge of the zeitgeist. No wonder he emigrated to Copenhagen.
Greetings from… The New Green Industrial Heartland
For many a seventeenth-century Grand Tourist, the reward after many weeks of hard travel and study was a sojourn in Venice. The city was by then starting to fade as a commercial and industrial powerhouse (its boatyard is the origin of the term “arsenal”), but it remained a stylish city of art and opera and epic masked balls, alongside countless other strains of cosmopolitan indulgence (the words “casino” and “ghetto” also once described singularly Venetian phenomena, and by many accounts the word “brothel” probably should have).
The New Grand Tour’s closest analogue is probably Berlin. Still littered with the ruins of the Nazi and Stasi regimes, the contemporary city is a sort of life-sized sequential diagram of enlightened green urban revival. It is nearly broke but rife with ultra-modern new buildings and state-of-the-art transit. There are notable art galleries and elegant little cafés on every block, yet the rents still make it the preferred European capital for cash-strapped artists and trust-funded poseurs alike. There are Communist-era blocks of bland flats with brand new green roofs. Remnant chunks of the Wall and sombre World War II plaques still haunt the city, but its nightlife is among the most ceaseless and exuberant anywhere. Germans are famous for inventing just the right compound word to describe something ineffable. They should make one up for the sensation of being simultaneously exhausted by the past and ecstatic about the future. In English, let’s call it Berlinism.
We steeped ourselves in Berlinism at its epicentre: the funky downtown neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. Another overly modest Craigslist ad had secured us another ideal apartment, though in this case the preschooler heaven of a local park was a full half-block away, in the shadow of a historic water tower that had served for a time as a makeshift concentration camp. There’s Berlinism for you in a single incongruous line: the old concentration camp is really a wonderful place to bring your kids.
There might be no other urban district in the industrialized West as ravaged by the twentieth century’s excesses as poor Prenzlauer Berg. Its capsule history reads like a litany of the sins of the industrial age—from prewar tenement slums to concentration camp deprivations to forty years under the boot of the East German police state. By 1989, it was so exhausted, so bereft of sustainable life, that many of its elegant old flats were abandoned, fully furnished, by East Germans fleeing west when the Wall came down. Yet today, just twenty years removed from its wholesale desertion, Prenzlauer Berg is as livable a neighbourhood as you’ll find anywhere. Among many other blessings, it is now home to the best farmers’ market I’ve ever overindulged at.
I could go on for some time about the Markt am Kollwitzplatz—the bread, the chanterelles, the olive oil pressed on site, the currywurst lunch with beer poured from a tap and served in a real glass, despite the takeout counter. To do so would really be to make a larger point about the New Grand Tour in general, thereby restating a well-known fact about Europe: that the food is, you know, weak-at-the-knees good. But moreover, that the culture of growing and eating food in Europe has largely skipped the most severe deprivations of modern agribusiness, meaning that even the most workaday greengrocers and mini-markets and takeouts deal mostly in what the huddled North American masses have come to think of as gourmet food. The Grand Tourists had their Venetian galas, but I found my own private decadence—even a hint of transcendence—in a sausage mit Pommes and a big glass of Hefeweizen.
An extreme example to underscore the point. There is a German pastry chain called Wiener Feinbäcker that you find in shopping malls, train stations, airport concourses. The location my family came to know was the one at the Alexanderplatz station. Like all Wiener Feinbäcker outlets, this one had a long glass counter that encased great piles of cherry Danish (which got my wife addicted) and croissants (which hooked my daughter). It also served passable coffee and, on a high shelf above the till, bread. Real bread. Big wheels of hearty German rye and sourdough, oblong baguettes and Italian loaves, plus bins filled with six varieties of Brötchen—Germany’s ubiquitous, delectable little dinner rolls. Wiener Feinbäcker is mass-market fast food. It’s the Tim Hortons of German baking. And yet its bread kicks the bland, dry stuffing out of I’d guess 98 percent of the places I’ve ever bought bread back home. The Alexander-platz station has better bread than almost all of Canada. This is my point.
I wasn’t in Berlin for the food, though, nor even for the general bonhomie of Berlinism. Like a Grand Tourist in Rousseau’s Geneva, I’d come to soak up the wisdom of Hermann Scheer, long-serving Social Democratic Party MP and co-author of the German renewable energy law that had done more than any other piece of legislation anywhere to launch the global green economy. We met at the Café Einstein, across from the parliamentary office block on the Unter den Linden, beneath trees that shaded triumphant Nazi martial parades in the years of Scheer’s infancy. He explained to me in his playful baritone growl how he’d launched the German feed-in tariff that has rapidly rewritten the energy policy of most of Europe.
(The New Grand Tour is not the occasion for policy wonkery, but briefly: Starting in 2000, the feed-in tariff, championed primarily by Scheer and Green Party MP Hans-Josef Fell and passed by the Red-Green coalition government of their two parties, set prices for electricity from renewable sources at substantially higher rates than those for power from conventional sources, and guaranteed those rates for twenty years. This not only sparked a massive nationwide boom in new wind and solar installations, but also moved the worldwide investment and production hubs of both industries to Germany, almost overnight. There is no taxation involved—the added cost is distributed to ratepayers nationwide at a price per kilowatt hour of electricity—and the estimated total cost to the average German household is €40 per year, amounting to a 3 percent surcharge.)
It began, more or less, with Scheer’s vote against ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, which made him the only German MP from any party to do so. “It is not a real locomotive,” he told me. “It’s a barrier.” Scheer recognized as soon as he learned about the gravity of climate change in the late 1980s that solving it would require a fundamental restructuring of the global energy economy. When Germany passed a weak afterthought of a feed-in tariff for wind power in the early 1990s, Scheer recognized it immediately as a potentially powerful lever.
For the rest of the decade, he slowly built alliances, helped establish a law journal to develop the legal foundations for the tariff, and squeezed a 100,000 Solar Roofs commitment through the Bundestag. With the election of the Red-Green Coalition in 1998, the drive for a muscular feed-in tariff began in earnest. It was passed in 2000, amplified in 2004, and reconfirmed by Angela Merkel’s Conservatives (who had opposed its original passage) in 2008. “We have the critical mass, and we have the public support,” Scheer explained. “In the renewable energy sector, there are more turnovers than in the conventional power sector now, more new investments.”
The fruits of Scheer’s labour crop up everywhere on the German landscape. Keen to give my kids their first real taste of quick, comfortable long-distance rail travel, we traversed the country from Berlin in the northeast to Freiburg in the far southwest. Wind farms and vast fields carpeted in solar panels were as much a part of the scenery as castle ruins and red-roofed villages. We skirted the rim of Solar Valley, the newly christened hub of the solar industry, just south of Berlin, where thousands of new jobs in the manufacture of solar panels have finally brought the former gdr’s chronic unemployment problems under control. We passed through whole cities where passive solar design has become a part of the building code.
As we veered south at Wolfsburg, gateway to the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s historic industrial heartland, I thought of my father’s stories of flying over the region in the late 1960s, when it was all but permanently obscured by clouds of smog. And then I recalled recent press releases I’d read about old Ruhr coal mines covered over with vast solar arrays. We didn’t make it to the North Sea coast, but German trade officials in Berlin had shown me pictures of the Seven Wonders scale of the work now occupying the city’s ports: the construction of towering five-megawatt wind turbines and the 45-metre-high, 710-ton steel tripods that anchor them to the ocean floor. In the next ten years alone, Germany intends to develop 10,000 megawatts of wind power in the North Sea, a generating capacity only slightly less than the entire current capacity of my home province of Alberta.
All told, Hermann Scheer’s ambitious policy innovation has converted 15 percent of Germany’s electricity grid to renewable power, and created a quarter of a million jobs just since the turn of the century. One study claims that by 2020, the German clean technology sector will be bigger than the automobile industry in the land of bmw, Porsche, Mercedes, and Volkswagen. And more than that, Scheer’s policy has the fervent support of hundreds of thousands of German homeowners who operate their own little rooftop power plants. You could see them from the train, particularly in the sun-kissed southwest, where the German villagescape of my memory has been given a wholesale photovoltaic overlay—a crazy carpet of glinting silicon and glass tidily laid across seemingly every other roof, in as distinct a sign of historical moment as the steeples of medieval churches.
At its very best, the feed-in tariff’s transformation of the German home may be the most quietly awesome sight on the whole New Grand Tour. And probably the best place to witness it—but of course—is Vauban, Freiburg’s sainted new suburb. Across the avenue from the redeveloped military base that forms Vauban proper sits Solarsiedlung, an orderly community of fifty townhouses, each of which produces more energy than it consumes over the course of a year. I’d first spoken to its architect, a visionary by the name of Rolf Disch, several years before, but I’d always wanted more intimate confirmation of the miracle of the Solarsiedlung. I was introduced on this visit to a couple who lived in one of the homes. After a half-hour of pleasantries, I asked to see their energy bills. They laid them out for me on their dining table with just a trace of bemusement.
In 2008, Harald Müller and Barbara Braun paid €398.69 (about $560) for their electricity consumption and €332.81 for their heat consumption. The same year, they were paid €3,750.29 for the electricity produced by the solar panels on their roof. Their net revenue totalled €3,018.79. They estimate that they’re still a few years from fully paying off their household power plant, but by 2012 or so they’ll be looking at more than a decade of pure profit.
This is how a feed-in tariff works: it turns an ordinary house into an engine that generates over four thousand Canadian dollars a year in profit. Surely there can’t be a homeowner anywhere, in any circumstance, of any political persuasion, who’d stand against that. This is Hermann Scheer’s confident bet—one he has made not only at home, but also in government halls willing to listen, from Spain to China to Ontario. It could indeed be as epochal as Rousseau’s embrace of the social contract.
Greetings from… The Spires of Andalusia
From a certain angle, the eighteenth-century Grand Tour was simply a series of jaunts between cathedral spires. In nearly every city, the main attraction was a great Gothic edifice, compelling an obligatory tramp up the spiral steps to the cupola to admire the view. There’s much less of this sort of thing on the New Grand Tour—as monolithically impressive as wind turbines are, there’s no real reason other than maintenance or hubris to surmount one. The Solar Spires of Andalusia are a notable exception. Few events on the tour are as exhilarating as ascending to one of their observation decks.
Technically speaking, the spires are not spires at all. They are power plants. There are three of them—PS10, PS20, and AZ20—and they soar over a broad stretch of Andalusian plain just west of Seville. They are great concrete wedges, pale yellow or grey, with elongated hexagonal openings running most of their length (to reduce wind shear), each with a deep indentation at the top like a gaping eye. They stretch to 90 to 150 metres, or about the height of the spires on Gothic cathedrals, and each is surrounded by hundreds of giant mirrors the size of barn doors. The mirrors concentrate sunlight on the eye at the top, where a steam turbine is mounted. Ancient technology, in a sense—the Industrial Revolution began with the steam engine—but these are some of the first industrial-scale engines to be powered exclusively by the sun’s rays.
The place, known as the Solùcar Platform, was erected by a subsidiary of Spanish energy giant Abengoa to generate 300 megawatts of electricity for the national grid and develop the next generation of solar technology. The three great spires themselves generate just fifty of those megawatts. The real workhorses are the parabolic trough concentrators: long, ditchlike assemblages of U-shaped reflective glass that concentrate light on a tube of liquid mounted at the U’s focal point, thus powering a steam turbine. The troughs have been so successful that Abengoa has contracted to build another installation an order of magnitude larger in the Arizona desert.
We arrived at the platform on an unseasonably cool and cloudy September day by local standards, which meant it was merely very warm and only occasionally blindingly sunny. Owing to a last-minute babysitting snafu, we had our son in tow, and as we waited for the elevator to take us to the observation deck at PS10’s mid-station, the guide noted cordially that ours was the first baby ever to visit the observation deck. We beamed with pride, though as it turned out he was wholly and vocally unimpressed with the amount of wind and noise.
From above as below, Solùcar was breathtaking. It plays tricks with the light that I’m reasonably sure have never existed before. When the sun ducks behind the clouds, for example, the mirrors have to be tilted away from the spire’s peak so they don’t reheat it too quickly when the sun returns. (Almost all the solar tower R&D at Solùcar is now focused on more heat-resilient materials.) When the sun’s rays first re-emerge to strike the tilted panels, the light is concentrated at a spot several dozenmetres in front of the spire’s eye, at the same altitude. It appears for a long moment as if the spire has somehow extended a visible energy field before it to catch the sunlight.
Solùcar looks like a sci-fi movie set, but it also comes off as ageless and permanent, almost obvious after a while. I was reminded of a one-liner I once heard the sustainable design guru William McDonough deliver. Whenever he meets skepticism about how far we can go with this Green Enlightenment, he said, he likes to point out that it took us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage. It took us only a couple of hundred to employ heat-concentrating mirrors in industrial power generation. The trail ahead is thick with low-hanging fruit. And the reason all of this is happening on the plain of Andalusia is not strictly nor even primarily because it is a very hot and sunny place; rather, it is because Spain was one of the first countries to pass a conscious imitation of Germany’s feed-in tariff.
My family had urgent business to attend to on a Costa del Sol beach, so I set out on my own for the final whistle stop of the New Grand Tour. I was moving along at 250 km/h in the first-class compartment of the ave del Sol, one of the newest routes on the rapidly expanding Alta Velocidad Española (ave) high-speed network, when a complimentary glass of dry Andalusian sherry arrived. I’d been half-reading a book, my eyes mostly on the digital screen above the compartment door that tracked our speed and progress in real time. The train topped out at 302 km/h over an unexpectedly tasty pasta lunch somewhere on the Castilian plain. I paused long enough to acknowledge that I’d never before in my life hurtled across the earth’s surface at such a phenomenal rate of speed, and was struck for a moment at how I was among the first generation capable of doing so. But it was all too much to chew on after the sherry, so I leaned back to enjoy the ride.
The ave del Sol leaves the station at noon sharp and arrives at Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha station shortly after 2:30 p.m. It covers about 540 kilometres—almost exactly the distance between Toronto and Montreal—in two and a half hours. You can board ten minutes before departure, and you don’t need to take off your shoes or surrender your bottle of water. Coach costs quite a bit less than most equivalent flights, first class only slightly more. The ride is smooth and sometimes truly thrilling; when two aves pass within a few metres of each other, going in opposite directions at 300 km/h, there is a sensation like being caught inside a muffled thunderclap. I disembarked in Madrid thinking: there has never been a combination of cost, speed, comfort, and convenience this flawless. The warm sherry buzz made the world seem luminous. My carbon footprint was 83 percent smaller than for an equivalent flight. I had just experienced the perfection of travel.
In the early 1990s, however, when construction on the first ave line began, it was hugely controversial. The Spanish rail system was a Continental laughingstock, antiquated and legendarily inefficient, with oddly gauged trains that required pointless mid-journey transfers. Nevertheless, the Madrid–Seville ave was seen in some quarters as little more than a fleet-footed white elephant, particularly since it was running not along the most obvious and populous route to Barcelona but straight to the prime minister’s hometown. It was an age of loose spending in Spain—part of the first post-Franco upgrade in the nation’s infrastructure, ahead of the Barcelona Olympics and the Seville World’s Fair, and financed in large part by transfer payments from the European Union—but even still, a bullet train to provincial Seville seemed frivolous at best.
A generation later, that prime minister, Felipe González Márquez, looks like one of the world’s great transportation visionaries. High-speed rail is fast emerging as the great global infrastructure play, and Spain is now blessed with possibly the world’s best model. By 2020, 90 percent of Spaniards will reside within 50 kilometres of a high-speed rail station, and the country will be as well positioned as any in Europe to meet the transportation challenges of an unstable climate and scarce fossil fuels. (Within a year of the launch of the Madrid–Barcelona ave line, air traffic along the route had fallen by 46 percent.) And what’s more, the ease and speed of travel between major cities isn’t even the most transformative thing about the ave. No, what’s truly amazing about the ave is that it has turned the land of Don Quixote into a land of opportunity.
Until recently, Ciudad Real was a mostly forgotten regional city on the Castilian plain, 200 kilometres south of Madrid. This was the desolate landscape across which Quixote made his futile journeys (a statue of Cervantes gazes over one of Ciudad Real’s main squares), and until the early 1990s the city was a place people mostly planned on leaving. That all changed when it became the first stop out of Madrid on the Seville-bound ave line. Ciudad Real, formerly several gruelling hours from the capital by inefficient rail or highway, was now less than an hour’s pleasant train ride away.
Spain’s rail planners had been almost entirely focused on the big hubs, so when they noticed that ave trains were leaving Madrid full but arriving in Seville half empty, they were initially perplexed. Further investigation revealed that a growing number of people were using the train to commute to Madrid from Ciudad Real. As the network expanded, a second category of service was introduced: avant, a regional network a half-step below the ave in terms of speed (260 km/h max), aimed at commuters.
Ciudad Real soon found itself welcoming new housing developments. Its colleges and hospitals were able to attract a higher calibre of staff, since top-notch doctors and professors could now live in Madrid and commute out to the smaller city. I took the avant out to Ciudad Real one morning with just such a prof: José M. de Ureña, head of the planning department at the University of Castilla–La Mancha. He waved to some uclm colleagues as we boarded. “Before, the economy was very close and very local,” he told me. “Now, in a sense, Ciudad Real is becoming part of the metropolis of Madrid. And that happens a lot within one hour of commuting.” Indeed, similar stories have played out along each new ave line. Segovia: an ancient jewel over a high mountain range from Madrid, transformed from sleepy tourist town to commuter hub. Valladolid and Lleida: old industrial cities finally connected to the modern economy. Saragosa: a second-tier manufacturing city that now steals conference traffic from Madrid and Barcelona.
“The regional networks—that’s the real revolution here.” This was José María Coronado, a colleague of Ureña’s at uclm. Coronado was one of the school’s locally sourced staffers, born and raised in Ciudad Real during its period of slow decline. “One of the biggest changes—but it is impossible to measure—is what happened in people’s minds.”
What he meant was that Ciudad Real saw itself now as a place in the world, a place worth investing in. Not all the commuter housing deals would pan out, and no amount of new development would transform a tired old burg on the dusty plain into a buzzing metropolis like Madrid. But then not everyone wanted to live amid such bustle. And if much of modern Ciudad Real had all the charm of a strip mall community in Kanata or Brampton (though substantially better tapas), the elegant old downtown square over which Cervantes kept eternal watch would be the showpiece of almost any city in North America. And there was now a reason, for the first time in generations, to plan to stay.
And more than this—much more than this—there was now a sense of momentum in Ciudad Real. In Spain. Across Europe. A renewed sense of optimism. Three hundred years of migration west across the Atlantic had been predicated on the belief that the empty continent on the other side was a land of infinite opportunity. The overarching lesson of the New Grand Tour, it seems, is that the centre of gravity is shifting rapidly back to the east side of the pond.
This appeared in the May 2010 issue.
Chris Turner (@theturner) published How to Breathe Underwater: Field Reports from an Age of Radical Change in 2014.