Even though the trees across the country are quickly losing their leaves, Germany is very "green" these days.
It starts with the trash every day. In most local communities, households now have four different trash bins outside their door – one for paper, one for plastic, one for organic waste and a trash can for "other rubbish."
In addition, glass containers are strategically positioned at street corners in every neighborhood, but also require active consumer participation. Under German rules, green, brown and white bottles need to be separated.
While the only reward for garbage sorting is a good "green conscience," the German government has been granting financial incentives for new measures that cut CO2 emissions and save energy.
Greenbacks for being green
Large wind power turbines, for example, the tall white towers with their huge blades, have become landmarks in many rural areas of the country. Nearly 20,000 plants with a capacity of more than 20,000 megawatts were in operation at the end of 2006, generating nearly 5 percent in Germany's total electricity consumption.
Meanwhile, more and more consumers – in this country that has opted to phase out nuclear power – are switching to more ecologically oriented electricity providers. Last week, the central German city of Kassel announced that the entire city of 200,000 inhabitants had switched to hydropower from Scandinavia.
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Support from government programs has triggered an unprecedented boom of wind and solar power, and has made the use of these renewable energy forms very attractive for the private and agricultural sector. Alternative power sources now represent about 10 percent of electricity generated in the country.
An average German household, for example, can earn over $2,860 a year from subsidies to install solar panels – double their electricity bill – and pay off all costs within 10 years.
As a result, Germany has become by far the largest market in the world for solar cells. But there is a downside to the photovoltaic boom, solar-panel manufacturers worldwide are grappling with increasingly high prices for silicon. Refined silicon, the most costly and crucial element in solar panels, has been in short supply for the last four years.
In April, Germany's environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, proposed an eight-point plan that included cutting Germany's CO2 emissions by 40 percent within 13 years. If government estimates are to be believed, then 20 percent of the country's energy will be coming from renewable sources, like wind, by 2020. Gabriel said he wants to enlist the German industry in pursuing this ambitious goal.
But, Gabriel's program would cost the German government more than $4 billion over the next three years, according to the Environment Ministry's own estimates.
Critics question the cost effectiveness of these programs and say that the savings in terms of greenhouse gas emissions could mainly be promoted to drive a political agenda.
But, there is no doubt that these green initiatives, new regulations and multiple garbage bins have triggered strong public awareness and are creating new jobs in Germany's renewable energy sector.