Yolanda Rother was in for a rude awakening when she took her first steps on the campus of Georgetown University in January. It did not take much for her to realize life in D.C. would be much different than she originally anticipated. All she had to do was look up.
“Lights were always left on. A complete waste of energy,” said Rother, 24. “The buildings did not seem modernized and energy efficient.”
Rother enrolled in a semester abroad program that took her from Humboldt University in the heart of her native Berlin, to the nation’s capital. Days into her stay, she quickly learned that Americans looked at energy differently than her fellow Berliners.
“Georgetown was not very much a role model when it comes to saving energy,” said Rother. “Humboldt University has an energy saving mechanism in its buildings where the light reacts to movement. They automatically turn off when no one is in the building.”
Her next four months in the District, Yolanda became more and more frustrated with what she saw as an unhealthy consumption of energy in the District. Berliners open their windows to let in a cool breeze through their homes. Air conditioners stay on for long periods of time in Georgetown’s classrooms. In Berlin, bike lanes were bigger and clearly demarcated. Drivers in the District rarely respected bikers who shared the streets with them. When out and about in Berlin, Yolanda ate meals with hardware forks and knives. In the District, she begrudgingly ate meals with plastic utensils. Yolanda’s frustration finally reached its threshold when she saw what she called a highly disorganized recycling system.
“The amount of throwing away shocked me,” said Yolanda. “I was so frustrated by this point in the United States because I felt it plays a large role in the ecosystem.”
A large part it plays indeed. The United States is perhaps the largest energy consumer of the major industrialized nations across the world. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal reserves are estimated at 275 billion tons, the highest of any country in the world and nearly 100 billion tons more than China, The U.S. also uses more than 21 billion barrels of oil a day.
What others see as the U.S.’ static change in energy policy has been a point of contention across the globe. While other countries aggressively work towards carbon emission reductions, it seems as though the U.S. is not cooperating at all. This perception did not come out of thin air. Rother, a liberal arts major and history aficionado, thinks its been that way since the United States did not sign on to the Kyoto Treaty, an international contract that called on industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse emissions yearly, in 1997.
The US faces insecurity in joining Kyoto, implicitly giving up a part of their environmental sovereignty,” said Rother. “Global emissions would keep rising because Kyoto doesn't cover the major emitters, like the United States and China.”
Less than six miles away from Georgetown University, politicians on Capitol Hill still disagree about how to tackle the country’s consumption problem. President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, both campaigning weeks before the election, have sparred over the country’s energy dependence as well. Romney criticized President Obama for delaying the construction the Keystone XL pipeline, an oil pipeline that would stretch from Canada to Texas. While President Obama included $90 million in the 2009 stimulus package for wind and solar energy products, the failure of government - backed solar energy company, Solyndra has made Republicans staunch critics of investments in clean energy.
While America’s energy dependence has been an issue during the election season, the economy, immigration, women’s rights have often overshadowed it until Hurricane Sandy. After a crippling oil deficit in much of New York City and New Jersey in the aftermath of Sandy, the federal government purchased 12 million gallons of gas. This has prompted questions about the future of energy usage in the United States. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, a Republican, endorsed President Obama and cited his own concerns about global warming.
“America should be a leader in setting standards in the fight against global warming. It ‘s a problem we all have to face,” said Mirko Wutzler, manager of consulting services at the German American Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco. “They have a lot of oil refineries that they make money off of and there are other problems so it’s not that high on the agenda.”
Alex Schaper, another German student who studied at The George Washington University during the previous spring semester also saw differences between German and American mindsets when it came to clean energy.
“Germans are very attuned to the need for sustainable products and services and the environmental impact of energy consumption,” said Schaper, 23 from Berlin, Germany. “The US already has a similar level of innovation, if not higher, yet the demand for those products is comparably low.”
Wutzler thinks Germans’ attitudes about energy consumption come from a lack of natural resources rather than an obligation to reduce carbon emissions.
“The price of gas has always been higher so it really affects our budgets,” said Wutzler. “Another part is the country is highly populated with 80 million people so the government early on had to think about policies to manage that and not be wasteful of resources.”
Germany committed to phasing out nuclear energy by 2022 in the aftermath of the nuclear reactor disaster in Fukushima in 2011 and the German people obliged. The German government has aggressively focused on it’s “energy concept,” dedicating nearly 3.5 billion euro in subsidies to private technology companies for the research, development, and storage of renewable energy.
“It’s quite normal to have close contact between the government and the private sector whether it’s the federal or state level,” said Holger Schlienkamp, director of communication at the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology in Berlin. “There is permanent dialogue on the issues and what needs to be done. CEOs talk to their counterparts in the government and we know what their problems are so we can feed that into the policy debate.”
The country hopes to integrate new sources into a new efficient grid infrastructure. In addition, it is Germany’s goal to have approximately six million electric vehicles on German roads within forty years. If everything goes as planned, renewables should account for approximately 80 percent of Germany’s energy usage by 2050.
That may not be enough for Germans who pay the second highest energy bills in all of of Europe, according to the Institute for Energy Research. The price of energy has risen over last year to fund government subsidies and discourage energy waste. In compliance with the Renewable Energy Act, operators increased energy prices by more than 40 percent. As a result, Germans will pay more than 20 million euro in energy costs in the course of the next year.
“People will be surprised that this costs money,” said Schlienkamp. ‘When you’re thinking about these problems you shouldn’t look at the cost side but think about the massive advantages and opportunities that exist for companies and the country as a whole.”
But many cannot help but to think about the cost side. EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger says the cost of energy and increased number of black outs of the grid are deterrents to businesses moving into Germany. The possibility of an overproduction of energy is often on the minds of officials at the Ministry of Economics and Technology, says Schlienkamp. The Ministry plans to eventually shift clean energy research and innovation to the free market and reduce the government’s financial contribution.
“Now we’ve come at a point where [renewables] are not niche products anymore,” said Schlienkamp. “The time has come to go from the method of subsidies and let the market take its course so that energy will remain affordable.”
That may not be enough for Germans who struggle to pay their rising electricity bills. According to the VdK, Germany's largest welfare organization, “electricity poverty” is increasingly becoming a problem. About 200,000 recipients of long - term unemployment benefits saw their power cut off last year because of an inability to pay electric bills. The VdK has called the costs associated with the energy turnaround “a glaring violation of basic social rights.” Wutzler does not see foresee any major upheaval from the rising cost of electricity.
“The good thing is the economy is doing well and not too many are unemployed,” said Wutzler. “For these innovations, you have to build the grid infrastructure and people don’t like it. It’s likely people have protested because they don’t want to be by power lines.”
Wutzler, a resident of the United States for more than four years, is disappointed by the lack of a commitment to reducing carbon emissions and finding new sources of energy. He thinks that even with Germany’s advancements, it is still not enough in the grand scheme of things.
“America should be a leader in setting standards for fighting global warming,” said Wutzler. “It is disappointing that America is not doing more. It ‘s a problem we all have to face.”