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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Willoughby and the missing middle

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The view from Willoughby.

The Willoughby neighbourhood, in the Township of Langley, is abuzz with construction.  There is something unexpected about what is being built there: a lot of townhouses and mid-rise condos.  In other words, the kind of density that is praised by urban planners and afficionados of smart growth.

It’s a bit unexpected: the township is at the furthest remote of Metro Vancouver.  This is where one would expect sprawling ranchers and large lots.  But maybe because land is cheaper this far away from downtown, these condos and townhouses  are more affordable than in Vancouver proper.  Townhomes are priced at about half a million, and condos start at a quarter million. It’s absurd that a quarter million dollars for a condo should be considered affordable, but that’s the crazy situation here; these new developments are a welcome addition to the housing stock.

New raingardens, new townhouses

And the construction is nicely integrated within the city’s fine plans for integrated stormwater management.  The Vesta development at Milner heights, for instance, has conspicuous raingardens and infiltration swales.

So what’s not to like?  Quite a bit, unfortunately.  I took a walk along 208th street.  Of course, there’s a lot of construction, and the street is a connector, so it’s not a bucolic environment.  But even where the condos are newly finished and occupied, it’s not very inviting.  I walked through a complex of three-story buildings, just across from the ambitiously named Willoughby Town Centre.  It is serviced by an access path that snakes around the buildings.  As a result every building is completely surrounded by pavement.  There is little green growth anywhere.  Adding to the sense of oppressiveness, all you see at ground level are garages.  Whatever happened to porches and flowered window sills?

A sea of pavement

This is precisely what problem is with these new developments: they are designed for cars.  They have to.  There is public transit, yes.  Since the development started, there is now a bus along 208th.  I use the singular because I have never seen it.  I have to believe that one can actually catch this 595 bus, and take it all the way to the Carvolth exchange, maybe, and have to wait there for another bus to somewhere.  It’s dispiriting.  No wonder that folks in Langley voted against a new tax to improve transit, if this is what their experience with transit is like.

Smart car, sure, but smart growth, not really




This is not to slight the Township.  But good development needs good transit, but that essential tool is not one the planners can wield.  It’s all decided in Victoria.  That’s the basic flaw in how Metro Vancouver is run: we have no say on transportation.

This is another form of the missing middle.  In urban planning, the expression usually refers to the lack of smaller houses and townhomes, in mid-density developments, that is typical of cities like Vancouver: a lack of availability for the middle of the market, between subsidized housing and million-dollar single-family homes.  But the missing middle could also refer to this Willoughby plan.  It may be a fine development, but it is in the wrong place, far from the centre, away from transit. It – or developments of a similar density – should be located much closer to the centre, to be useful to a larger number of people that should not have to depend on cars.

I went back to the Willoughby Town Centre.  It’s too new to have any charm, obviously, and there’s too much space for cars.  All the stores are the same chains you’d see everywhere, from Shopper’s Drug Mart down the line.  But at least there is an independent coffee shop with character, Mattu’s.  On a Monday morning, around 10:30, it was quite busy.  Locals seem to use it as a community focal point.  Maybe there’s hope after all.

Written by enviropaul

March 20, 2017 at 8:46 pm

The unexpected costs of oil

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The (oil polluted) community of Tadoule, Northern manitoba

It’s easy to be single-focussed about the environmental consequences of using oil and other fossil fuels.  Many of us think about climate change but we easily forget other aspects, especially those that are unexpected.  It’s not just climate change, nor even just air pollution.  I was reminded of that after reading a couple of excellent books recently.

I recently posted a review of one of these books, Shaun Loney’s An Army of Problem Solvers.  He describes the situation in the first nations community of Northlands, in northern Manitoba just south of Nunavut:

There is more money spent on diesel and its cleanup that on housing, economic development, and healthy food combined.  It is another instance of abundant government money available to spend on a problem.  The diesel is job killing, environmentally backwards, and brutally expensive.

On my flight into Northlands from Winnipeg, I met reps from a soil-remediation company who were familiar with the community. They had been there many times before on lucrative government contracts.  They were on their way to undertake a half-million dollar contract to take soil samples and come up with a remediation plan.  A multi-million dollar contract to actually clean up the soil would follow.  None of this creates local jobs.

Northlands uses diesel mostly for power and heat.  Their situation is far from unique (a good review of the situation in other northern communities can be found in BriarPatch magazine on-line).

The 2013 I-5 bridge collapse over the Skagit River (Seattle Times).


I always have a few books on the go.  I was just finishing Elly Blue’s 2016 Bikenomics (how bicycling can save the economy.  Portland: Microcosm Publishing) on the heels of Loney’s book, meditating on some of the more absurd costs of oil dependence, when I read Blue’s comments about the Skagit River Bridge collapse.  This is a bridge that is part of Interstate 5 in Washington State.  But this wasn’t another case of poorly-maintained, crumbling infrastructure: the bridge was in fine shape before the collapse.

The part of the story that never got more than a passing mention in the media is that the bridge did not collapse because of structural defects…The cause of the collapse was a truck that struck the bridge overhead structure several times.  The truck was too large for the bridge, taller than the maximum height indicated for crossing and larger than the bridge’s designers, half a century earlier, had likely ever imagined a truck could be.  At the time of the collapse, the truck was in service delivering heavy oil-drilling equipment from the Port of Vancouver, Washington, to the Alberta Tar Sands oil fields.  The equipment was housed in large containers for the trip, and it is one of these empty containers that struck the bridge struts on the southbound trip.

These are just two examples of costs that we don’t often associate with oil, just two among many.  Oil pervades the economy, of course, and so one expects issues associated with oil to crop up in unexpected places.  This isn’t to say that we should get off oil overnight.  But, at the same time, oil shouldn’t get a free pass; the damages that oil causes, from air pollution and soil contamination to unexpected infrastructure accidents should all be part of the tally.  Then we can make wiser decisions.

An Army of Problem Solvers (a book review)

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an_army_of_problem_solvers_coverA friend loaned me a book called “An Army of Problem Solvers”, by Shaun Loney.  She didn’t push – “You may find it interesting, I dunno”.   Usually I’m weary of books with that kind of titles;  they tend to cause the eyes to glaze with a mix of dry-as-dust policy discussion and naïve, feel-good stories.  So I started the book in the middle, chapter five, because this is where some community energy projects were described.  I figured there’d be some meat there, at least.

Indeed.  Loney starts with a description of the Rainy River $160 million, 25 MW solar farm.  This is an Ontario installation of 130,000 solar panels that covers about 120 ha.  All of it is community power.  The band makes money form it; most of the income goes towards paying back the financing, but that still leaves about one million in annual profits, which are plowed back into the community.  This project has given the band more independence and clout in self-governing, as do all community power projects.  This one, incidentally, was made possible by the much decried Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) created by the government of Ontario.

Manitoba Hydro has a Pay As You Save (PAYS) system.  This is used for financing energy efficiency retrofits and insulation for some first nations projects, such as the Fisher River first nation, which has led to the creation of a self-supporting company, Fisher River Builders, who are providing energy retrofit services to a variety of clients.

But the federal government gets in the way; the financing fee on the utility bill is considered an ineligible expense for people in social assistance.  An $8 million partnership between Aki Energy and the Waywaysecappo First nation in northern Manitoba was turned down by Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC).  INAC ruled that the social assistance money can’t be used to pay such projects.  The case hit the media; this embarrassed the government into backing down and offering to “restore the funding”.  They were then doubly embarrassed to learn that there was no funding to be restored; this is an independent contract, driven by the bottom line, and not some kind of subsidy.  They offered to pay the $8 million themselves; the partners declined.  Why? Because this would not only be unfair to others who have paid earlier, but mostly because it reinforces the vision of bands as immature wards of the state.  Argues Loney:

The reason they offered the money is because this way they can maintain control.  We often hear that INAC is a colonial department.  This is a good example.  Force the high-cost, low-impact so that they can maintain control.  Apparently, this is preferable to the low-cost, high-impact approach that gives communities the tools they need to be successful.

There are no food stores in the Garden Hill First Nations community.  Food is brought in from away, distributed periodically.  17% of the community members suffer from diabetes.  Yet Garden Hills used to be self-sufficient: country food (the product of hunting, fishing and gathering) was available, but also locally grown vegetables, as well as meat and dairy produced by members of the community.  What happened?  The Indian Act.  One case illustrates the situation.

Stan McKay told me that his parents sold one of their five cows so Stan would have pocket money when he was away [in school].  But this was done only with permission from the Indian Agent and at a cut-rate price.  They had to go through him because it was illegal for Indigenous people to sell anything off-reserve without permission of the Great White Mother’s agent [this was only repealed in 2014].

The historical overview is full of depressing stories like this.  Thankfully, the bulk of the bulk is just the opposite: examples of effective solutions (Garden Hill is now home to the Meechim community farm and orchard).  I was aware of some of the issues, but many of the petty rules and frustrations described were completely new to me.  A bit of a shock, one that shook me out of my complacency that, as a non-aboriginal person, this is not my issue, but a mere historical wrong that “others” should fix.

This is where the book is particularly important and salutary.  Loney asks what the role of a non-aboriginal – a settler, in other words  – should be:

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports reminds us that a key part of the reconciliation process involves those of us who are not Aboriginal becoming aware of our own personal stories and how they connect to the past and present lives of Aboriginal people.  Through this we gain a better understanding of the broken spirits among us and the role we must all play on the road to reconciliation.  The Indigenous reality is not an Indigenous problem.  It is a Canadian problem.  Or, more accurately, it is a Canadian opportunity.  As Stan McKay says, reconciliation is a path we must all walk together.  One of the most important steps we can collectively take is to create the conditions to allow local economies to re-emerge.

Wow.  That is true for First Nations, but it is also true for the whole country: community projects, be it food or energy, create jobs and reinvest money in the local economy.  What is true for a community like Garden Hills First Nation is also true for Prince George or a Vancouver downtown eastside.

Need I specify?  I read the whole book, and my eyes never glazed.


Loney, Shaun 2016An army of problem solvers: reconciliation and the solutions economy.  Available from

Shaun Loney is a former Manitoba civil servant turned social entrepreneur; he is an Ashoka fellow (look up the association up here).

Written by enviropaul

March 5, 2017 at 6:45 pm

The buses of Hamburg, part three: supported and innovative

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All aboard the hybrid bus!

All aboard the hybrid bus!

In my last posts on the buses of Hamburg, I mentioned that the bus system is great.  Buses flow down Mönckebergstrasse seamlessly, without impacting the retailers of the street negatively; no mean feat considering this Hamburg’s equivalent to our Granville street.  I also mentioned that buses are on time and go everywhere, even to as surreal a destination as a sand dunes area within city limits.

The bottom line is that it is enjoyable to take the bus.  It’s a simple reality that is easy to overlook.  But there, it works.

Obviously, this doesn’t happen by accident.  There is a lot of government support behind it.  It is interesting to compare the numbers between Hamburg and Metro Vancouver, because the populations are not that different.  There are 2.5 million people in Metro against 1.7 million in Hamburg; but the numbers are fairly similar if we include some of the areas near Hamburg, such as Geesthacht, Pinneberg, Norderstedt, or Ahrensburg, all accessible from Hamburg’s transit system.

Last time I checked, Metro’s TransLink had 1307 full size buses on the road, versus only 777 buses in Hamburg.  Yet, the service seems better in Hamburg than in Vancouver.  The difference in land area that the buses service partially explains that situation:  Hamburg covers 755 square kilometers, against 2900 for Metro.  Obviously, it is difficult to provide service on urban sprawl.  This remains true even if we add the areas of the four municipalities mentioned above and include the smaller towns in between, we’re still under 1000 km2.  To make it fair, one ought to shave off from Metro all the forested and mountainous area not serviced by transit – or roads, for that matter, and get a more realistic service area of about 1500 km2.  And for a fair comparison, one needs to add the 80 or so blue buses of West Vancouver.  But there’s still better service in Hamburg.

But the main reason for the discrepancy is that the Hamburg buses play a supporting role to its very extensive rail system: 930 km of commuter train lines, 289 stations, and nearly 2000 train cars. (In contrast, the skytrain has about 80 km of lines and 300 cars.)  So there’s no equivalent of the under-capacity 99 B-line in Hamburg; there’d be a train already.

A fuel cell bus downtown Hamburg

A fuel cell bus, downtown Hamburg

Another way in which Hamburg demonstrates its support for its bus system is by adopting new models, with the objective of improving air quality and lowering the carbon footprint.  Hamburg has no trolley buses, and the bulk of its fleet runs on diesel.  But it has recently acquired eight Volvo hybrid articulated buses.  With regenerative braking system and lithium batteries, these buses reduce their CO2 emissions by 75%.  In addition, the fleet now includes six hydrogen fuel-cell buses; these, of course, produce no carbon emissions at all.

These new additions are the first steps of a very ambitious program: Olaf Scholz, Hamburg’s mayor, declared in 2014 that as of 2020 any new additions to the fleet will be zero-emission fuel cell buses.  In Hamburg, this is the sort of thing that a mayor can decide.

Another hybrid bus

Another hybrid bus

In contrast, the fleet of Vancouver fuel cell buses, all twenty of them, has been sold off following a very successful demonstration run between Whistler and Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics.  This was decided by TransLink, for financial reasons.  It’s difficult not to be disappointed by this turn of events.  Hamburg has been testing its buses on regular city runs for years, and this is why they can be confident in their decision.  A short run focussed on the Olympics, on the other hand, is enough for proof of concept, but much too short to really put the buses, and the system, through their paces.

This is not to slag TransLink.  Every system has its own peculiarities, and TransLink can only do what a particularly tight-fisted government in Victoria will allow.  They have great people and cheerful, helpful bus drivers.  Everything is in place to make riding the bus as fun an experience as in Hamburg.  Everything, except…well, we could use more buses, and more drivers.


Written by enviropaul

February 20, 2017 at 7:52 pm

The buses of Hamburg, part two: a travelling book exchange arrives on time

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The Altesland by Finkenwerder, by bus

Altesland, Finkenwerder, by bus and ferry

I took a lot of buses in Hamburg, and that’s a bit of a surprise, in hindsight.  I love trains, and I took mostly them, the U-Bahn, the S-Bahn, to go all over the place.

But even within the city limits, there are areas that have a very low population density, and trains don’t go there.  The Vierlander, a city projection that looks on a map like a pseudopod, is an agricultural area that supplies Hamburg’s vegetables.   At the opposite end, Finkenwerder is Germany’s largest orchard, and it is also part of Hamburg.  Both areas make for lovely walks, and can be accessed by buses (Finkenwerder is across the Elbe, and the bus ticket includes a passenger ferry).  Even going further afield, there’s a bus: when I went to Geesthacht, a small town in the province of Schleswig-Holstein that abuts Hamburg, I took a city bus.  (And, even in the boonies, the bus was right on schedule, within a minute of posted time.)

The Boberger dunes, within Hamburg

The Boberger dunes, within Hamburg




I also took the bus to get to the Boberger Dunen, a completely unexpected natural wonder within the city limits.  It is a series of sand dunes, bereft of vegetation, left behind by the retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age.  Despite the rainy weather of Hamburg, the porous sand can’t retain moisture, and vegetation just doesn’t get a foothold.  It’s a very surreal area.  Pretend for a moment that you’re in the Sahara, climb up a dune, and look around.  Beyond the sand, to the north, is a woodlot, behind which you can make out a few houses.  To the south, down a dip, are the flat fertile farms of the Vierlander, an area sometimes flooded by the Elbe river that you can see further away, shining in the sunshine.

It’s quite marvelous to be able to go there for a short excursion, and be able to get there and back on buses that arrive on the hour or the half-hour, reliably.  But the surprise was to see how well used the buses were.  Even in these very low density areas, there were many riders, including kids.  Near Bergedorf (an area with many refugees), a large group of schoolkids boarded my bus, laughing, horsing around.  I recognized some German, some Arabic, and who knows what else.  They were all smiles.

The book exchange in the bus

The book exchange in the bus

One of these buses to the outer city even had a book exchange inside.

Buses are the most plebeian members of public transit, sure.  Subways, tramways, even cable-cars are more sexy.  But buses are the foundation of any transit system, ensuring connectivity, reach, and reliability, all things that are essential to a good working system.  And the Hamburg buses are frequent, clean, reliable, far-reaching, and precisely on schedule, dependably.  And they’re rarely packed.  Loser cruisers they’re not.

When is the bus coming?

When is the bus coming?







I was downtown on a rainy and cold evening, going home.  On my way to the U-Bahn I looked up at the electronic sign.  My bus, the M6 Borgweg, would arrive in 5 minutes, and there’d be another one minute later.  The first one would drop me off right at my street corner, Goldbekplatz.  An easy choice.

Written by enviropaul

February 20, 2017 at 7:38 pm

The buses of Hamburg, part one: Mönckebergstrasse

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Mönckebergstrasse, with jaywalkers.  Tsk.

Mönckebergstrasse, with jaywalkers. Tsk.

When in Hamburg I would often find myself on Mönckebergstrasse.   It’s one of the busy downtown streets, a commercial artery filled with fancy boutiques and eateries, some unique and interesting, others outlets of chains found in airports the world over.  It could be compared to Montreal’s Ste-Catherine, or Vancouver’s Robson.

In a way the street is also like Vancouver’s Granville.  It is a transportation hub with subway stations and bus lines. I took a bus there many times.  Private cars aren’t allowed on Mönckebergstrasse, which is reserved for taxis and buses.  When Vancouver decided to reserve Granville for bus traffic, it was widely seen as the beginning of the end for Granville as a merchant street, with pawn and porn shops taking over.  Thankfully, the street is now healing, having reinvented itself as venue for shows and pubs.  But this near-death never happened to Mönckebergstrasse – why?

Being in a European city, you would think that the street was saved by its historic character.  But that’s not it; the street was punched through what had been a downtown slum only in 1906, making Granville street actually older.

(For that matter, being historic is no guarantee of success.  Steinstrasse, just south of Mönckebergstrasse, was the very first street paved in cobblestones of all of Germany.  This street, the heart of the ancient town, should be an assemblage of medieval and renaissance buildings, but it is just a busy street fronted by non-descript office buildings.  It witnessed three waves of destruction: the great fire of 1842; the heartless slum clearances of the 1900s, after the cholera epidemic; and, of course, the terrible firebombing of 1943.  Hamburg does not reveal its history easily; a lot of it is either scars or absence.)

Is the difference due to Hamburg being a bigger city?  Not really.  Greater Hamburg has a population similar to Greater Vancouver, and a relatively low population density for a European city, comparable to Toronto’s.

It’s not even that the street has something Germanic in its character.  Horror of horrors, Hamburgers jay-walk across Mönckebergstrasse as often as we do across Granville.  (At least the buses arrive precisely on time, but that’s neither here nor there.)

No, I remain baffled.  Vancouver’s experience says that Mönckebergstrasse should have been a failure.  It’s not.

Inside a store on Mönckebergstrasse

Inside a store on Mönckebergstrasse

Maybe it’s because of Spitalerstrasse.  This is another street, parallel and adjacent to Mönckebergstrasse, but this one is a true pedestrian mall.  Restaurants and pubs have covered tables in the street, and there’s always a crowd.  The tables are a permanent fixture, and there are outdoor patrons year-round, no matter the weather.  Hamburg does pedestrian malls very well; Spitalerstrasse probably provides some of the crowds for Mönckebergstrasse.

Maybe it’s because of some of the stores; some have a unique architecture.  Hamburg was ambitious, the gateway to the world, in the 1910s.  But this could be said of Vancouver, too, where gems like the Marine Building went up at about the same time.

Or maybe it’s because Hamburg is its own entity, the equivalent of a province.  In Hamburg, there is no need to wait for a policy on transit or store hours from some remote and indifferent capital, as between Vancouver and Victoria.  Hamburg just does what Hamburg needs to do, and can adjust its aim quickly.

Still, these are, at best, only partial answers at best.  I’ve been looking for ideas for downtown Vancouver: how do you keep a transit hub vibrant? Mönckebergstrasse should be an inspiration.  Instead, it’s an enigma.  I don’t know why it works.  But it does, and I kept being drawn to it.

Written by enviropaul

February 20, 2017 at 7:22 pm

Energy democracy (a book review)

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buchcover-mit-randOften, when I discuss energy matters in Germany, like their leadership in solar and wind power, people reply “ah well, yeah, but that’s Germany”.  As if that explained anything.  As if, somehow, it was something that was meant to happen in Germany, as opposed to, say, Canada.  As if, in a country that makes Mercedes cars, it was a planned, logical development that followed a smooth and easy path.

This was far from the case, as described in Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann’s new book, Energy Democracy.  It was fought all the way, and nothing was easy.

Take wind energy, for instance.  Engineer Erich Hau was present at the initial test of Growian, in 1983.  Growian was a large wind turbine pioneered by the big utility company RWE.  The winds on that blustery October day were strong, about 80 km/h.  Modern turbines can handle such winds, but it may not have been the best day to test a prototype.  Still, the signal was given to start, and the blades started spinning.  Too fast, uncontrollabley. The windmill’s generator had not been connected to an electric load, never mind to the grid.  With no load to push against, the turbine quickly became unstable.  The test was a failure.

Erich Hau was aghast at the results, so he did a bit of digging.  He found that the executives present had not come to test the turbine, but to sabotage it.  A leak revealed that one of them had previously said “We need Growian to prove that wind power won’t work.”  RWE, a large utility heavily invested in coal and nuclear energy, did not want wind.

Travel in northern Germany now and wind turbines are everywhere.  What happened between now and 1983 was an epic fight, mostly fought by communities trying to regain control of their electricty against the big private utilities.  The fight that started mostly as a fight against nuclear energy turned into a fight for community energy: cooperatives pooling the assets of local citizens and investing in wind, solar, or biomass energy.  Fighting for access to the grid while retaining control of their assets and their production.  That control was key.  If there were never any local protests against windpower in Germany, it is because it was the locals who had decided, as a group, to set up wind power themselves.

It has to be emphasized that this was happening during the very conservative times of Helmut Kohl,  who could have repeated Maggie Tatcher’s aphorism that “there is no such thing as society”; this epoch is remembered as reformstau, a time when every reform initiative was stalled.  But events took care of disproving this: society did react to the Chernobyl crisis.  People wanted to control, and produce, the energy they used. Even captains of industry like Alfred Ritter started helping community energy groups and nascent solar energy firms. (Ritter, a chocolate bar manufacturer, could no longer source hazelnuts for his chocolates – they were radioactive.  The realization that everything is linked to everything dawned upon him as it did on the rest of German society.)

The book is an excellent historical of how Germany went from there to now, detailing the traps that the big energy boys set for the community cooperatives, only to be hoisted by their own petards or be defeated in court.  So it’s full of hope for those here who think things can never change.

But the book is also an interesting comparative study of American and German cultures when it comes to politics and economics.  The authors show how Adam Smith has been misinterpreted as advocating greed and laissez-faire (he didn’t; he advocated for government ensuring fair rules).  They also point out that there are no German words for gerrymandering, or voter supression, or that Lügenpresse (lying media) has been declared the “non-word” of the year in 2014.  Public institutions work better and are more trusted by the German public, it seems.

The authors also mention that a situation whereby small coal-producing states have disproportionate power in the US Senate could not occur in Germany.  Germany, at the federal level, elects its politicians using the mixed-member proportional system.  In Canada, if we were to adopt such a system, it would mean that half of the elected MPs are there because they got the most votes in their ridings, but the other half are there in proportion to how many votes their party got.  So no vote is ever wasted, which promotes public participation and reduces cynicism.

This voting system also usually produces what we would call minority governments; if the Energiewende went through, it’s because the governing party adopted a policy proposed by the Greens.  As a result, Germany became a leader in wind and solar co-operatives, and a major exporter of energy technologies.  What, a proposal meant to protect the environment was good for business?  You bet.

That’s why it would be good if we could all convince Mr Trudeau to stick to his promise and reform the electoral process…

Morris, Craig & Arne Jungjohann 2016.  Energy democracy: Germany’s energiewende to renewables. Palgrave Macmillan.  Also check Craig Morris’ Energy Transition website.

Written by enviropaul

February 16, 2017 at 12:42 pm