As fuel prices soar, environmentally conscious communities are adopting varying strategies to go green.
Freiburg, in southern Germany, is going all out to tap the solar power. A Freiburg neighborhood, the Schlierberg Solar Village for instance, consists of solar-powered houses that consume only 10 percent of the energy used by average homes. Solar-Fabrik, a producer of solar panels, has a sun-powered factory in Freiburg.
AdvertisementSolar power accounts for only 2 percent of the city's energy supply. Still, many see the city as a pioneer in solar technology. The local soccer club, SC Freiburg, runs its stadium largely with solar energy and power converted from wood chips.
People who use solar panels to power their homes sometimes produce more energy than they use. In Germany, such unused power is transferred to the local utility, which buys it from the homeowners at a government-subsidized rate.
On the other hand, straw and clay are the building materials of choice Sieben Linden, a village in eastern Germany. Some of its roughly 100 residents live in homes built with little more than clay, wood and straw.
Straw bales coated with clay are put inside the homes' walls. The insulation reduces the need for powered heating and cooling, making the houses much more energy efficient than homes made with standard building materials, according to village resident Martin Schlegel.
"The energy you save by [using straw] is sufficient to heat this house 12 years, compared to a house built with normal modern materials," he said.
Those who worry about the straw easily catching fire should think again, Schlegel said. He said that because the bales were tightly packed, they didn't ignite quickly.
"[Burning] a sheet of paper -- it is very easy. But try to light a telephone book," he said, comparing the bales to the book.
Interestingly the villagers of Sieben Linden have also fitted their homes with solar panels.
"Environmentally sound living always involves high tech," villager Werner Dyck explained. "The solar panels are high tech, and we have computers to make them even more efficient to manage our energy needs."
But it has its flip side too. The strong demand for solar technology in Germany has contributed to a global shortage of a key panel component -- silicon -- making solar technology more expensive. Freiburg's mayor, Dieter Salomon, said solar power wasn't necessarily the best energy choice.
"It's a symbol, it's not the big shot," he said. "I think the future of photovoltaic [solar energy] will be in the less developed countries."
A continent away, the Chinese government plans to transform a rural area of 100,000 people into a city of 400,000 that would run largely on renewable energy.
They are hoping to convert the rural area of Wanzhuang, near Beijing, into an "ecocity" -- one of the nation's first.
A tram system will be introduced to reduce residents' reliance on cars. About 300,000 more people will move to the area, which is now known for its pear orchards.
The orchards will be preserved, and schools, offices and shops will be placed in a manner to reduce travel needs, developers say.
Critics may note that the effort wouldn't be significant for China, citing estimates it opens a new coal power plant every week, emitting more environmentally damaging carbon.
In the Middle East, the emirate of Abu Dhabi -- a major oil producer -- is spending $15 billion to make itself an epicenter of green technology.
Part of its plans include building a 2-square-mile eco-community -- called Masdar -- over the next 10 years. Air cooling alone is quite an energy-consuming task in the sunny Persian Gulf emirate, but developers say the city can be run on energy from the sun, wind and biofuels refined from plants and waste.
Water will be purified by solar power and recycled from the sea for both consumption and farming. About 40,000 people will live there, and another 50,000 will work there, organizers say.
Meantime UN reported Tuesday that sustainable energy added 31 gigawatts to worldwide capacity last year, growing by 23 percent.
Biomass and waste to energy technologies expanded by a whopping 432 percent.
Research and development in the sector totaled nearly $17 billion in 2007, of which $10 billion came from corporations and $7 billion came from government sources.
Developing nations are a widening target of new investment, which grew 22 percent to $26 billion from 2004 to 2007.
Global investment in sustainable energy amounted to $148 billion in 2007, a 60 percent gain over 2006.
That will grow to $600 billion past 2020, reported New Energy Finance, a consultant to the U.N. Environment Programme.
And thus goes the quest for a more sustainable living.