Strong Independent Cities

Strong Independent Cities

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How would you feel if you were riding a bus powered by the leftover scraps you threw away from dinner last night? If the heating in your house was produced within the house itself? If you didn’t have to pay an electric bill because your city is creating your electricity? Maybe you feel like none of that would be possible? Think again because renewable initiatives such as these are taking place in cities across Europe.

»How would you feel if you were riding a bus powered by the leftover scraps you threw away from dinner last night?«

Växjö, Sweden (the potato peel city, as I like to call it) has been a frontrunner in sustaining itself since the 1990s. Motivated by the pollution in their lakes caused by fossil fuel emitting industrial complexes, local Swedish government officials decided it was time to make a change.  They chose to abandon fossil fuels and half their carbon emissions. Today carbon emissions are historically low at 2.7 tons per person (nothing compared to the 19.78 tons emitted by Americans, or the 6.36 Swedish national average!).

Global Carbon Footprint  

Total carbon emissions by nation and region. The image of a footprint is composed of circles sized relative to the carbon emissions of each nation and color coded according to region. (Photo credit: Stanford Kay)

Växjö governs its own energy policy and resources independently. They manage their own biomass plants, produce electricity heating and cooling. The source of their heating? Leftovers from the forest industry such as twigs, leaves, and branches.  The plant supplies energy to 90% of the city’s 60,000 inhabitants. The plant also supplies 40% of the electricity needs. Recycling in Växjö has reached high levels as compost and organic waste is not only separated by the residents but is taken and re-used to make bio-gas that fuels public transport. Sewage is also used to power the green bio-gas busses.

Ann-Arbor_Emily.pngCities in Germany are also making progress independently, and decentralizing the energy sector. Heidelberg, Germany, a city renowned for Science and the acclaimed Universität Heidelberg, boasts numerous scientific institutions. It’s no surprise that 56 Nobel Prize winners have worked and lived in this research hub. The city at large has its own energy company, as many other German towns and communities do, and manages its gas, heating, water and sewage systems.  By 2050 they aspire to be free of fossil fuels motivating their fast switch over to renewable energy.

Heidelberg’s largest step towards reducing emissions is their 116 hector Bahnstadt district.  Originally a freight train terminal, this plot of land has truly been transformed. The district is 100% free of CO2 emissions and is entirely constructed of passive houses. These structures are anything but passive when it comes to saving energy. They allow for heating and cooling and use less than 1.5 liters of heating oil per square meter per year. The heating comes from internal sources such as solar heat or body heat and the ventilation system is what allows for the transmission of energy throughout the building. Surprisingly affordable the passive houses’ higher quality is mitigated by eliminating expensive heating and cooling systems.

Science of the Passive House

Passive houses harness the energy of the sun light and the enrvironment to drastically reduce the energy consumption of home owners.(Photo credit: primex)

(This database lists over 4,000 passive houses around the world.)

Vertical garden buildings are set to open in Bahnstadt this year, an architectural product of eco-friendly Wolfgang Frey. Based on his ‘five finger principle’ buildings must be ecological, affordable, innovative, integrative and profitable.  These garden structures create oxygen in the atmosphere and have facades covered in solar modules to generate energy. Frey has also established vertical gardens in Freiburg. In countries like the US and China vertical farm buildings are popping up as well!

Feldheim, Germany, located in the province of Brandenburg provides its own power 100%. Creating their own bio-gas from corn, manure and rye produced by the city they power the electricity and water systems. Heating comes from the woodchip plant, electricity is produced by the wind park, and an energy storage plant stores what is produced extra in times of low power supply.

Feldheim, Germany, (pop. 660) is an “Energieautarker Ortsteil,” or an energy self-sufficient district. In 2010, Feldheim became one of the first villages in Germany to supply all of its own electricity and heat. (Photo credit: Andrew Dey/snapshotsofberlin)

Although Feldheim is small, with a population of 660, their initiative has inspired people from many different countries and their ability to provide entirely for themselves based on what they already produce shows how little it takes to be sustainable. Although decentralization of large sectors in the economy is difficult these cities show it is possible and efficient on many levels. Moving towards solar panels and using recyclable material instead of fossil fuels, cities could power the electric grid, reduce emissions, and decrease costs to large electric companies. In America especially, I believe local initiatives could be implemented faster and more effectively than federal initiatives.


Emily Young is a student in International Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. She grew up in the tri-border region of Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium and  has a serious interest in US and EU Relations. Emily loves photography and will contribute a photo series.