send
Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Coal on a conveyor belt going into the STEAG plant near Herne and Essen. Germany made great strides during the 1990s to upgrade its coal-fired plants, significantly decreasing emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides. © Wolfgang Hoffman
Coal on a conveyor belt going into the STEAG plant near Herne and Essen. Germany made great strides during the 1990s to upgrade its coal-fired plants, significantly decreasing emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides. © Wolfgang Hoffman

December 2002

The complex business of keeping the lights on

Smart energy policy takes more than flipping a switch. Germany provides lessons.

Natasha Kassulke

Wisconsin's energy outlook | Achtung! Why Germany?
Munich makes creative use of its trash
Power plant at home in a Zolling nature preserve
Lippendorf lignite plant impresses | STEAG cleans up the coal act
Dresden delivers political change and ideas about transmission lines
Mitte CHP in the heart of Berlin
Insurance, security and climate change | The challenge continues

Rise and shine!

Turn off the snooze alarm, take a hot shower, pour some coffee and turn on the news. Your morning routine? It's a piece of the energy puzzle.

Future energy use and supply is a concern in Wisconsin amid growing demand, instability in the Middle East, rising gas prices, evidence of global warming, debate over nuclear waste disposal, Enron Corporation's bankruptcy and health research. A Wisconsin Environmental Decade study found that in 1997, ozone or smog was responsible for 4,200 hospital emergency room visits in Wisconsin.

In our next two issues of the magazine, we will explore Wisconsin's energy challenges and consider energy innovations that are working in Germany, which is considered ahead of the game in conserving and making rational,environmentally sound use of energy. In the second part of the series we'll consider renewable energy sources and explore some of their applications at home.

Wisconsin's energy outlook

In the summer of 2000, California created a "could it happen here" panic when it experienced large-scale power disruptions. While Wisconsin has not experienced rolling blackouts, we have energy concerns.

There's debate over the proposed 250-mile transmission line to power 400,000 homes. The $175 million Arrowhead-Weston project would be the largest electricity transmission project in Wisconsin in at least 25 years. The 345-kilovolt line would run from Wausau to Duluth, Minn. and rise as high as a 12-story building. Opponents have fought the line for three years arguing it is bad for the environment and their property values.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) is concerned that Wisconsin's current transmission system could overload leading to blackouts. Wisconsin currently relies on four major transmission lines connecting it to other states, while Illinois has 25 interstate transmission lines and Minnesota has 18.

The PSC also estimates that state demand for power will grow two percent per year between now and 2007. Wisconsin imports roughly 15 to 20 percent of its electricity, according to the Energy Lifeline Coalition of Wisconsin.

Another major concern – state power plants are aging. Over half of Wisconsin's 16 coal-fired power plants are 30 to 50 years old. Older plants tend to be viewed as inefficient and dirty.

Recently, as many as 20 power plants have been proposed in Wisconsin by independent power producers. Eight plants powered by fossil fuels are likely to be proposed here during the next three to five years to meet growing energy needs.

The governor's energy outlook estimates that Wisconsin needs at least 6,300 megawatts of additional capacity – a nearly 50 percent addition to present production – in the next 15 years to keep its homes, stores, farms and industry supplied with reliable energy.

Consider this: The state Division of Energy reports that in 1970 the average Wisconsin electricity customer used 6,711-kilowatt hours per year. In 2000, that average was 8,545 kilowatts – a 27 percent increase. Demand from commercial customers jumped 120 percent during the same period.

Most of the power plants are proposed by independent producers, a new kind of enterprise born as the power industry is deregulated. Spin-off companies of traditional Wisconsin utilities have proposed other projects.

Last year, WE Energies proposed a 10-year, $7 billion energy reliability plan – "Power the Future." Under the plan, the utility would spend $3 billion to build five new power plants – two in Port Washington and three in Oak Creek using new coal and coal-to-natural gas technologies that reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. Using natural gas is arguably cleaner, yet natural gas costs customers at least 7-10 percent more and its future supply is uncertain.

The PSC leads the power plant review process under the state's Power Plant Siting Law, which focuses on environmental impacts. The Department of Natural Resources weighs-in by reviewing air and water quality consequences, solid waste (ash) management and more. State utilities are regulated to limit pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and soot.

This summer, DNR staff reviewed a flurry of proposals for gas-fired combustion turbine plants and three large (600-megawatt) coal-fired units. State energy policy calls for ongoing dialogue on how to meet future energy needs while evaluating Wisconsin's current energy mix comprised of 75 percent coal-generated power, 20 percent nuclear, two percent gas and the rest in renewables.

A recent study by the nonprofit Leonardo Academy found that Wisconsin imports oil, gas and coal at a cost of more than $7.5 billion a year. It reported that increasing energy efficiency and alternative energy use could save about $500 million annually. Also noted – transportation accounts for about 30 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in Wisconsin.

Providing energy is a complex issue that links environment, economics, politics, social trends and more. Energy fuels more than homes and cars. It fuels debate. But most people agree that Wisconsin needs an affordable and reliable energy supply – a combination that is also being pursued elsewhere.

Achtung! Why Germany?

Officials are turning to Europe for ideas, particularly Germany, which is considered technologically progressive and a leader in policies and financial innovations to generate clean, efficient power.

Signs of energy conservation in Germany are everywhere. Shoppers return or pay extra for grocery bags, hotels ask that you conserve water and shampoo, cars are smaller and semi trucks are really semis. People heavily rely on public transportation – buses and trains. In Munich, there are separate sidewalk lanes for bicycles.

Germany also is tackling tailpipe emissions. Old cars are inspected and retired. Three out of four cars in Germany have catalytic converters or low-pollution, fuel-efficient diesel engines to reduce ozone. German cars average 32 miles a gallon compared with 24.5 miles in the United States. Diesel engines burn as much as 30 percent less fuel than gasoline engines of comparable size and emit far less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Diesel is a popular fuel in Germany where gasoline prices are often three times U.S. prices and where slightly looser particulate standards allow its use. European diesel fuels are lower in sulfur than fuels available in the United States.

Efforts to conserve energy are bringing environmental benefits.

According to Johann Hahlen, president of the Federal Statistical Office, energy consumption in Germany decreased two percent between 1991 and 2000, CO2 discharges were down 15 percent from 1990. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide decreased 56 percent between 1991 and 1998. These waste reductions were accompanied by an 11.5 percent increase in gross domestic product, adjusted for price changes.

Germany has also committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 21 percent from 2008 to 2012 compared to 1990 levels and reduce carbon dioxide emission by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2005. Further, the country is committed to doubling its use of renewable energy sources by 2010.

Nitrogen oxide controls were placed on coal-fired plants more than 11 years ago.

Many changes in Germany are a result of ecological tax reform, which will gradually increase energy prices to create incentives for new technologies and energy economy. A Renewable Energy Sources Act obliges energy grid operators to pay a set price and buy all renewable energy generated from solar, hydropower, wind, biomass, geothermal, sewage and other sources.

Arguably most important, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and reunification of East and West Germany created fertile ground for change. The European Union directive of December 1996 became the cornerstone for reorganizing electricity markets. The Energy Industry Act in April 1998 led Germany to become a pioneer of deregulation.

With this background in mind, a 23-member Wisconsin delegation visited Germany earlier this year to learn how German power utilities develop, manage and maintain plants that burn fossil fuels in an environmentally sound manner. The goal? To see if some of the German facilities and techniques are worth considering as Wisconsin develops future power plants. The answer, was "yes."

The delegation included DNR staff along with a PSC representative, Alliant Energy Corp., Madison Gas & Electric and WE Energies (formerly Wisconsin Electric Power and Wisconsin Gas), the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative, UW-Madison environmental engineering faculty, the Environmental Decade and others. The delegation was diverse because it will take many people from various disciplines and expertise to tackle Wisconsin's energy challenges.

The delegation visited Munich, Lippendorf, Dresden, Berlin and Essen to learn about how Germans are responding to climate change, view technology, and see how modern plants are designed and operated.

The trip continued DNR's partnership with Bavaria from the 1990s to examine pollution control policies that consistently produce environmental results greater than what is legally required. The Bavarian "Umweltpakt" since 1995 has called for greater industry responsibility instead of regulation, more voluntary action instead of controls, more cooperation instead of confrontation, and upfront environmental protection instead of end-of-pipe solutions.

In five years, 900 companies and 50 trade organizations have signed on. In return, the state offers reduced emissions fees; streamlined permitting and monitoring for participating companies; and continued program funding. Other financial incentives help small businesses hire consultants to develop an environmental management system.

The public keeps up too. More than 60 measurement stations throughout Bavaria monitor air quality around the clock. Readings are broadcast on the Internet and as video text.

Delegates toured coal and gas-fired plants in four German regions that featured innovative technology to reduce nitrogen oxides, precipitate 99 percent of dust particulates, and remove more than 90 percent of sulfur dioxide emission.

Land is at a premium, and most German power plants are sited on the grounds of outdated plants. Many use cogeneration to provide local heat and hot water in addition to electricity.

Delegates also learned about the Germany energy grid – a high-voltage transmission network that runs from north of Norway to Portugal. If one plant shuts down, another can step up without a flickering light.

Grid operators constantly review the energy balance. A power company is fined if it fails to contribute the contracted amount or for producing too much energy. E-mails and phone calls tell a power station to adjust its load. Companies may close plants that can't cover costs. Plant maintenance is scheduled when another plant can pick up the slack.

German power plants bring taxes as well as jobs to communities, whereas in Wisconsin, local government is barred from collecting property taxes on power plants. According to the Assembly Energy and Utilities Committee, during 2000-2001, Wisconsin power companies paid $137.9 million in taxes of which just $26.2 million went back to the communities housing these power plants.

Perhaps most impressive to delegates was the German emphasis on public awareness of energy issues. They invest in public relations and engage the public early through letters, brochures, books, videos and town meetings. The newest plants have state-of-the-art visitor centers.

Yet, Germany also wrestles with energy dilemmas. Nuclear power will be phased out in the next 20 years. The country's 19 nuclear power plants will be shut down after a lifespan of only 32 years under the deal. Since nuclear power provides 30 percent of Germany's energy supply, replacing that source may force the country to import electricity.

Overwhelmingly, Germans support a diverse mix of energy sources for safety, security and reliability.

Munich makes creative use of its trash

In Munich, the city utility is burning its trash and sewage to create energy and support public transportation.

Enno Ihnken, manager of district heating and electricity generation for Stadtwerke Munchen (a city-owned utility serving 1.3 million people), says the company supplies electricity, local heat and water. Its power operations subsidize $150 million for city buses and commuter trains, as well as the public pools (baths).

In Wisconsin, this kind of a contribution is unlikely since shareholders, rather than cities, own the biggest power companies.

Munich also annually burns 675,000 tons of its garbage to produce 10 percent of the city's electrical demand. In Wisconsin, garbage is not typically incinerated because it contains more heavy metals.

Munich also incinerates dried sewage sludge surpassing environmental standards for that practice while disposing of more than 50 percent of the city's refuse and sludge.

Many of the byproducts – slag, flyash, gypsum and scrap metal are sold for reuse. Ammonia is recovered from treated wastewater.

Customers pay 13.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity and the average electric bill for a Munich household is almost $108 a month plus a $9 monthly fee. Wisconsin customers paid about 7.6 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity in 2000.

Ihnken says the German public knows environmental protection comes at a price. But in return, power plant emissions have been dramatically cut and they haven't experienced a blackout since 1972.

Power plant at home in a Zolling nature preserve

E.ON Kraftwerke, a division of Europe's second largest privately-owned power company, operates a coal-fired power plant in Zolling outside Munich. At Zolling, electricity has been produced from hard coal for more than 40 years.

In 1985, the old 365-megawatt plant was replaced with a 449-megawatt modern coal-fired plant at a cost of about $2 billion. The plant, sited in the Amper Valley Nature Preserve that is home to deer and wild boar, is painted light blue to blend with the sky. Between 300,000 and 600,000 tons of coal are annually fired here to supply electricity to about five million homes.

Raw coal is crushed to a fine powder to ensure optimum burning. Heated air dries the coal and. 20 burners blow it into a boiler where it is burned at 1,500 degrees C (or 2,732 degrees F). Pressurized water passing nearby in steel tubes turns to steam that is fed into a three-stage turbine to generate electricity. The steam returns to a condenser, cools back into water and is pumped into the boiler to be reheated and reused.

Flue gases got full environmental treatment. Nitrogen oxides are reduced to nitrogen and steam. Electrostatic precipitators remove 99 percent of dust and gases pass through scrubbing towers that react with crushed limestone and oxygen to remove 90 percent of the sulfur dioxide emissions. The resulting fly ash and gypsum of cookie-dough consistency is sold for use in construction projects.

Given this increased efficiency, today, the Zolling plant can produce twice as much electricity from a kilogram of coal as it could in 1950. Further, automation means it takes just six people per shift to operate the plant.

The plant is so quiet that from the outside it seems the plant isn't running. Power plants in Germany tend to be quieter than American plants because of acoustic shielding around noisy processes. In Zolling, the plant is not allowed to produce more than 34 decibels of sound so as not to disturb neighbors. (Normal speech is about 60 decibels.) Running at full load, you can barely see a puff of smoke from the stack.

The Zolling plant also plans to add a biomass plant to burn waste wood. Residents in the region currently pay steep fees to dispose of wood in landfills. Though electricity costs about twice as much to generate from biomass as coal, German law guarantees a price and requires grid operators to buy 100 percent of the electricity produced from renewable sources such as wood.

Josef Pflugler, 67, runs a bakery and organic farm adjacent to the plant. He has lived here all his life and worked at the old plant from 1957 to 1960. He says there was less discussion about building the new plant because people knew it would be more environmentally sound and safe.

"The plant is a good neighbor," Pflugler says.

Marianne Haimerl, a cleaning woman for a local church, can see the power plant chimney from her backyard. She agrees with Pflugler and says the plant brings jobs into the area.

"I am satisfied now that they have made it cleaner," she says.

Lippendorf lignite plant impresses

The most impressive plant for many delegates was a 933-megawatt capacity plant at Lippendorf, near Leipzig in East Germany. Its history is as interesting as its technology.

The plant burns lignite (brown) coal, which is often rejected in the United States because of its high sulfur content. Lignite has been extracted from Leipzig for over 300 years. Large-scale strip mining ended in the late 1980s, but a strip mine near the plant delivers coal via conveyer belt directly to the plant.

After reunification, the region redeveloped, changing from a series of scarred open pits to recreational and industrial areas with lakes. Jobs have been created in the arts and ecology; and publicly subsidized environmental protection has since come to the forefront as unemployment rates in parts of Eastern Germany are as high as 25 percent.

Viewing the region today, it is difficult to imagine that this area was "behind the curtain" 12 years ago or that more than 11,000 bombs were dropped here during World War II. Power plants here supplied gas for the German war planes.

"Back then, you could wear a white shirt and it would be grimy by the end of the day," explains translator Bernard Weisemann. "You could smell the chemicals in the air." Switches had to be cleaned on railroad tracks because the ash became so heavy at times that it piled up like dirty snow. People didn't paint their homes white because they wouldn't stay white for long.

Today, from a rooftop observation deck you can scan the Leipzig landscape and clear skies. Emissions at the coal-fired plant have fallen by more than 90 percent. "It is like night and day now, the air is so much cleaner," Weisemann said.

The plant took 3 years to build right next to the retired power plant that was too costly to retrofit to meet environmental standards. The plant burns 10 million tons of raw lignite annually and uses new high temperature technology with 42.4 percent design efficiency. In colder weather, when the plant can provide heat to local housing, the fuel efficiency will increase to about 46 percent. (By comparison, the 1970s built Columbia Power Plant near Portage in Wisconsin operates at a 34 percent efficiency level.

But fuel efficiency comparisons can be a bit misleading, explains UW-Madison Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ken Ragland. European firms use lower heating values of fuel to calculate overall efficiency while U.S. companies use higher values. The difference is that water from moisture and hydrogen in the fuel is condensed recovering the heat of vaporization in the higher value. So 33 percent efficiencies in the United States are about the same as 40+ percent efficiencies in Europe for the same coal and technology.

Special firing measures ensure low nitrous oxides emissions. Flue gases pass through two ducts equipped with an electrostatic precipitator and a desulfurization system. Over 99 percent of dust and more than 95 percent of sulfur dioxide are filtered out and gypsum is produced.

Though lignite coal is notoriously sooty and dirty to handle, the plant has eliminated smokestacks and instead, exhausts are directed through shortened cooling towers making the plant more visually pleasing. Heat and water will be delivered to Leipzig through underground pipelines. The plant is clean. Floors are washed and vacuum cleaners remove residue dust, which is moistened and returned to the combustion unit.

Emission levels are constantly monitored and environmental authorities have access to plant computers and emissions printouts daily. There are fines when the plant exceeds emission level limits.

"The fines are imposed not on the plant, but on the person at the plant who is found to be at fault," explains Bernard Hauschild, plant public relations manager. "It can be a few months salaries down the drain."

Other costs to the plant include taxes, mining royalties and license fees. If the plant remains in compliance, though, it pays a lower fee for its emissions.

The plant has been designed so that it will need little additional investment over the next 40 years.

"People are asking us why we have lower emissions than our permit allows for," Hauschild says, "but we've grown up in a way that taught us that if you can do it a better way, you should do it a better way. It costs more money upfront, but the bottom line is that it is more profitable to be more efficient and environmental."

STEAG cleans up the coal act

STEAG uses 2.4 million tons of hard coal at its 950-megawatt Herne cogeneration plant to supply customers with electricity and heat. In 5,000 hours of full-load operation the units feed 4.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity into the grids of RWE, one of Germany's major utilities.

"All of the old power plants here that weren't retrofitted have been gone for 10 years now," explains Wolfgang Benesch, a specialist in planning and constructing power plants for STEAG. "Laws set emissions limits, but it is up to the companies how they want to achieve those."

Each plant must find the right technology for its fuel mix, Benesch says.

The Herne plant meets the electrical needs of about 800,000 people. Advanced methods of cleaning flue gases, protecting surface water and abating noise are needed since the plant is next to a residential area. Acoustic insulation reduces noise emissions.

Monitoring the electrical grid at STEAG, which serves several regions and countries in Europe. © Wolfgang Hoffman
Monitoring the electrical grid at STEAG, which serves several regions and countries in Europe.

© Wolfgang Hoffman

"We have six to 10 complaints a year by phone about the power plant," explains plant manager Gerhard Howe. "Our policy here is to hear out the complaint and try to talk it out. The complaints vary from questions about the power plant operations to noticing that leaves from our trees are falling on neighbors lawns."

Green space and a park-like atmosphere surround the plant. There is bicycle and motorcycle parking for employees. The roof has an observation deck for tour groups. The control room is state-of-the-art.

Authorities can show up and take sample at any time of the day. Noise levels, measured at five points surrounding the plant, are limited to 60 decibels during the day at 50 meters from the cooling tower; 45 decibels at night.

An site wastewater purification plant treats water from the plant. Up to 800,000 tons of coal filter ash, slag-tap granulates and gypsum accumulate annually. Because of their quality and ecological compatibility, these materials see new life in building construction, road construction and more. Some fine-grained fly ash is used to remove graffiti.

Creative new uses for its waste materials combined with communication are key elements in STEAG's progress to gain public acceptance.

"We need public acceptance because it influences the timing of construction and long-term project success," says Jorn Vogel, a permitting expert. "We not only want people to accept the plants, but even support them."

Vogel says acceptance comes from building "columns of trustworthiness" – contributing to the local economy, creating public awareness materials, hosting meetings, creating jobs and using environmental protection measures. End of pipe and smokestack monitoring results are made public.

Permitting in Germany has largely been streamlined. The German emissions control act demands that companies provide public information and give people a chance to react, explains Vogel.

"Usually there is just one hearing before an agency is granted a permit," Vogel says.

New projects may take 1-1 years to get the necessary licenses and permits. One license is granted for construction. Facility licenses last for the lifetime of the plant. Plants are checked every few years to ensure that they are state-of-the-art.

Dresden delivers political change and ideas about transmission lines

In Dresden, delegates learned about political changes and transmission lines. Dresden, capital of the Free State of Saxony, is located on the River Elbe and has developed over 800 years as an important center for culture and science in Germany.

"Twelve years ago, the socialist system left a disfigured landscape, pollution and inefficient energy use," explains Gerd Ellmer, business manager for industry in Dresden. "Today, we have an efficient power sector and all power plants have been refurbished or replaced. We have the most effective lignite plants worldwide, co-generation plants, wind parks, plus smaller hydroelectric plants."

With higher efficiency and top-notch technology, power plants here have reduced their emissions up to 95 percent. "Four million fewer tons of CO2 are emitted annually, but we have maintained the same level of energy production. There is little potential to further reduce emissions at the power plants. So we are now concentrating on lowering emissions in transportation, private home use, businesses and industry."

Power lines and transmission strongly factor in a reliable energy supply here.

"There is a legal planning process, strict environmental rules and lots of negotiations for power lines," Ellmer says.

Gerd Kaulfub, power plant manager for municipal utilities in Dresden, says landowners were offered monetary compensation when a power line was built on the outskirts of Dresden.

"We negotiated with landowners. They realized that building the lines there would be a safe and secure power supply," Kaulfub says.

But he also admits that having a power line cross your property has a "clear negative effect" on property values.

"It is mostly agricultural land where the new lines are built," Kaulfub says. "So property values are not as affected as they would be if the land was zoned for residential construction."

Many power lines follow existing railroad lines, Kaulfub says. Landscape preservation rules define steps to avoid ecological damage and offer compensation during power line siting.

Mitte CHP in the heart of Berlin

Homes line the street just 16 meters from a natural gas plant in the heart of Germany's capital, Berlin.

The modern 380-megawatt Mitte CHP plant has operated since 1997 along the River Spree on the site of a closed facility that used to spew intense emissions from a 140-meter chimney. The new plant is considered a showcase as a good neighbor that is good to the environment.

Its central location and short routes to customers keep transmission losses to a minimum. In winter, when it provides local heating, the Mitte plant reaches 90 percent host utilization efficiency from its gas and steam turbines that are tied into underground utility lines.

A two-seat electric car outside the Mitte CHP plant in Berlin. The plant tests electric cars and other energy-saving devices, such as public benches along the River Spree that are heated in winter with waste heat from transformers. © Wolfgang Hoffman
A two-seat electric car outside the Mitte CHP plant in Berlin. The plant tests electric cars and other energy-smart devices, such as public benches along the River Spree that are heated in winter with waste heat from transformers.

© Wolfgang Hoffman

"In the city people don't like overhead lines," says Andreas Naumann, public relations specialist for the plant. "So we built underground lines."

Sensors in the insulation layers of underground pipes monitor for potential leaks. The four-mile long main tunnel runs 25-30 meters underground. Constructing a network of connecting tunnels was closely coordinated with public works utilities, city parks, road and traffic projects, the Berlin parliament and neighbors. The project was completed on schedule in July 1999.

Plant tours are a mix of science and culture. Visitors clad in hard hats and earphones follow tour guides and find artwork, modern sculpture and murals from worldwide artists. Public benches along the River Spree were designed by a Turkish artist and are heated in winter with waste heat from the transformers. A large-scale model of the plant offers lessons in German and English. Two-seat electric cars are tested in the parking lots. Naumann says the owners spend nearly $1 million annually for public relations campaigns (not including advertising).

"In Germany, environmental motivation is high," explains Anders Hedenstedt, a member of the managing board. "There are strict environmental rules, but also a culture where you're always trying to do the best and be the best."

Insurance, security and climate change

Delegates were briefed on how climate change affects investment decisions by the insurance and banking sectors.

Dr. Gerhard Betz, Munich Reinsurance Company's director of GeoRisks Research, described how global warming has measurably changed the number of natural catastrophes worldwide. Munich Re is the world leader in insuring other insurance companies against catastrophic losses attributed to natural disasters like flood, earthquakes and hurricanes.

"From 1992 to 2001, the number of disasters has increased by three percent and we need to think of the reasons behind this," he says. Some of the change is attributable to clearing of wooded areas and altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

In a world with constant climate, weather-related losses would be easier to calculate over long periods, but when climate is more variable, it is more difficult to estimate weather risks. For the insurer, this means an increased risk of being ruined by a sudden high loss. The industry reacts by either limiting the benefits paid when losses occur or by raising premiums.

Munich Re views the increased frequency of extreme weather as a sign of changed climate. The firm has reduced the upper limits per claim. According to Munich Re, in the 1970s, 19 large storms worldwide caused $10.4 billion in claims. By the 1990s, some 39 major storms resulted in $71.4 billion in claims. Betz says estimates of global warming damage point to potential annual losses of $300 billion in the United States due to catastrophic weather.

Other claims can be costly too. For instance last August, the Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the City of Boulder, Colo., sued the United States government, on behalf of people who contend they are global warming victims. Litigants include a North Carolina couple who fear that their retirement property will be lost to storm surges, erosion and rising sea level; one of the largest maple syrup producers in Vermont who believes his business will be ruined as maple trees disappear from the area; and a marine biologist whose life's work is in jeopardy because coral reefs are disappearing due to rising ocean temperatures. The suit alleges that two U.S. government agencies – the Export Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation – provided over $32 billion in financing and insurance for oil fields, pipelines and coal-fired power plants over the past 10 years without assessing their contribution to global warming.

The challenge continues

After returning to the United States, delegates met to review what they'd learned.

Germany is not Wisconsin, but Germans saw reunification as an opportunity to change and replace outdated, polluting power plants. Some lessons – especially cooperation among partners in making environmental-energy decisions – may be useful here.

In Berlin, delegates saw a top federal regulator and business leader sit side-by-side explaining how they achieve better results from businesses. They discussed incentives like lower fees and quicker reviews for firms exhibiting superior environmental performance.

The Association of Germany Industries is one player that lobbies and actively promotes sustainability – a balance of the environment, social needs and economics. People are offered real incentives to buy less energy-consuming, less polluting cars and services.

Germany also looks elsewhere for ways to improve its climate control policies – to the Netherlands, Spain and even to a pilot program in Chicago that offsets CO2 emissions by planting trees.

"The direct use of German energy/environmental experiences may not transfer directly because of different political, social and cultural systems," reminds Pat Eagan, a delegate, program director and associate profesor for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Engineering Professional Development Institute for Environmental Studies. "You have to move ahead using our unique American system. Maybe the most important lesson is that working together can achieve results."

But overall, delegates agreed that their world views have changed since visiting Germany where people are living quality lives while creating less pollution by using energy more efficiently.

Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.