I See Further by Standing On the Shoulders of Giants

In the middle of Cologne, Germany, along a bustling street near City Hall and the Mayor’s Office, there is a doorway with stairs that lead to the past. The Praetorium is the palace of the Roman governor, and lies relatively intact below existing government buildings. Like much of this city, the Romans and all of the people that have lived, worked, and made Cologne their home since the 1st century, left an enduring presence. Walking through town, it is impossible to miss materials and techniques used in each building, and rebuilding, of the city. In such places, it’s tough to think or act without palpable reminders of the past.

Image of the Praetorium in Cologne, Germany – photo by Stacy Sinclair

I was part of a delegation, invited by The Aspen Institute – Germany, to take part in international dialogs with business and government representatives to learn about each other’s choices and challenges on a myriad of topics. In a city where you cannot avoid walking on, over, and through history in the course of the day, context resonates at a deep frequency.

This city reflects built environment choices from the 1st to the 21st century. History continues to inform and influence discussions, including those about the need for energy independence. Germans I talked with are focused on growing solar and wind production not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on other countries for fossil fuels, but to replace energy currently produced by local nuclear and soft coal.

They tell me that democracy is slow and requires patience, but at times, it is a drop of water falling onto a hot stone – sizzling. To me, the country feels like it is on the verge of an energy revolution, fueled by decentralization and technological innovation. By unbundling energy grids, Germany has created a new way into resilience at the local level, binding energy generators and users as a new networked community. By incentivizing landowners and operators to generate increased wind, solar and bio-fuels, new local producers are coming online, nearly doubling the number of plants since 1990.

When customers can choose their utility and the sources of energy bundled in their contract, they are also empowered to make choices that reflect their beliefs. This competition model is more than lowest cost, adding transparency about energy sources, taxes and fees.  People are talking with their pocketbooks about what sources of energy they most want.

By using meteorological information to predict and forecast solar and wind potential, then using digital feedback to react to renewable energy production and use levels across clients, new digital utilities are trading energy in 15-minute intervals.

Of course, businesses with the ability to ramp up (or down) energy use to off-peak, maximizes access to the cheapest electricity for bottom-line benefits as well as green branding. LA Department of Water and Power’s SummerShift Program, encouraging peak-shifting to minimize brown- and black-outs, reflects some of the same foundations. Such programs for large-scale businesses are on the rise globally.

The next challenges include reducing the cost and energy loss in transporting electricity across long distances, finding better long-term storage options, better monitoring of energy use, and predictive techniques for solar and wind generation. As systems become more robust, options for multi-family and low-income home communities will increase, bolstered by net zero and other policies aimed to push the envelope.

It helps when the political environment can set the course and fund initial innovation, but it doesn’t have to. We remember our local and global past and the price our communities have paid for poor energy choices. Bernard of Chartres (12th century) made notable the concept then made famous by Isaac Newton (1676), that we can see further when we stand on the shoulders of giants.

We can see the past that remains in our built environment to inform where we need to head. There are many ways to get there. What examples have you found inspirational – locally and globally? Please join the conversation by contacting me directly at stacy.sinclair@me.com or leaving your thoughts here.

Thank you to those whose ideas, innovations and unique perspectives are captured above:

  • Andrew McAllister, CA Energy Commission
  • Brian McClung, MZA+Co, LLC
  • Corinna Blumel, Journalist
  • Dimitri N. Roberts, SevenStar Consulting
  • Edmund Novy, PRMG
  • Jan Aengenvoort, Next Kraftwerke
  • Katharina Droge, German Bundestag, Green Party Group Representative
  • Sue Appelton, Do-loop Beratung + Design
  • Ted Bardake, Mayor Garcetti’s Office of Sustainability
  • Tedd Povar, Virginia Institute of Government
  • Thomas Bischorf, Okobau gGmbH


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