Monday, November 30, 2015

Crash and Burn

Going into the COP-21 Paris climate talks, the U.S. position is reportedly to emulate Maryland's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, bringing carbon emissions for the whole country down 27% by 2025.  I imagine this won't be very hard, since peak oil and financial disaster will force us down that path eventually, anyway.

Meanwhile, Maryland can't seem to see the forest for the trees of gas lines crisscrossing the state. Though informed in 2010 that Maryland's abundant biomass could provide a portion of the state's energy, clean power investment has favored natural gas, solar, and wind power.

It would be comforting if Maryland would ban fracking like New York did this year. Otherwise, investments in cleaner power plants, such as the PSEG Keys Energy Center being built up in Brandywine, may end up as incentives to further damage the environment.  While it may beat coal and gas export in terms of carbon emissions, natural gas is non-renewable and only sets us up for a big gap when we deplete it without adequate alternatives.  Solar and wind won't come close to providing the level of energy that we get from fossil fuels.  Wood biomass could help some, but we have to begin putting the infrastructure in place.  In addition to building new types of facility-scale power plants, we need to reshape the workforce to concentrate it on sustainable forestry.  It is time to turn the corner, even if we have to slow down in doing so.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Playing with Fire

I am proud to be a Marylander just for the simple fact that our state is a leader in the fight against climate change.  Maryland's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act (GGRA) rivals the plans of such progressive states as Switzerland in the rapidity envisioned for reducing emissions to fight global warming.  Since GGRA was enacted in 2009, Maryland has actually reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions faster than required by the plan, which calls for a 25% reduction of the 2006 level of emissions by 2020.  We are now at the point where an update to the plan is needed, as the Act must be reapproved in 2016.

Insofar as the real importance of Maryland's plan is not in drawing down emissions, but in showing other states how it is possible to do so while growing the economy, the GGRA is laudable. I do, however, have my reservations as to motives and the ultimate outcome.  It's not that Maryland is just so small as to have little bearing on global warming, it's that, at this point in the game (and more so in 2020, when other states might begin catching on), we cannot reduce atmospheric CO2 enough, fast enough to avoid catastrophe unless we immediately abandon business as usual (and/or put all our hopes in a "hail Mary" geo-engineering program).  By "business as usual," I include the reliance on economic growth for sustainment of the economy.  A major result of capitalistic, exponential growth is that it drives us deeper into fossil fuel dependence, while these limited resources become ever more expensive and environmentally harmful to extract.

Case in point: the Cove Point LNG export facility.  One of the most frequent concerns raised in public hearings held by the Maryland Climate Change Commission was the amount of GHG that would be induced by the facility's operations. Calculations show that this total would negate more than half of the GHG reduction progress made throughout the state since 2006 when the final results of the GGRA are tallied after 2020.  This effect was not included in the GGRA Plan Update, in spite of public input.  Even if it had, much of the effect would be masked by the fact that a good portion of those emissions are "off-shored," either to other states where the gas is shipped from, or to the end users overseas.

To be fair, it seems that Maryland is not in the least in control of whether the Cove Point expansion takes place. The climate commission considered it to be too much of a hot potato to even address it, and even climate-friendly Governor O'Malley wouldn't challenge it during his term.  This gives me little hope that the District Court of Appeals in Columbia, MD will rule favorably toward the environmental petitioners in their suit to require the FERC to re-evaluate their decision to allow the Cove Point expansion.

It's not that the powers that be really care whether Maryland's economy grows under business-as-usual, it's that they want to continue the bubble economy at the national level as long as possible, at least until it becomes apparent that we have no hope to avoid human extinction other than a "hail Mary" play.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Terror Starts at Home

The heightened level of "security" brought on by the most recent global terrorist attacks and threats will likely be evident in several ways to all Americans right where they live.  One local organization that is primed to play in this game is the Calvert County Sheriff's Department.  They have been itching to take on any would-be disruptors of our sedate rural existence, so much so that they zero in on whatever appears alien.  Out of state license plates are one clue.  Visiting for the purpose of protest is another.

A situation like the one recently at Bank of America stadium involving repellers with a banner protesting the Cove Point Plant expansion was resurrected recently when charges and counter-charges were filed over the treatment of protesters who had been arrested following the crane climbing incident early this year at Dominion's staging site on the Patuxent River.  It is not at all surprising that the Sheriff's Department would put a stop to such a stunt.  Their main concern, however, appeared to have been avoiding prolonged embarrassment from any perceived inability to control a one-off situation (rather than concern for the safety of those involved).  Hence, the degree of paranoia necessary to assertively respond to the latest scare is endemic to our county's law enforcers. In the crane incident, it will be difficult to tell whether the counter-charges by the Sheriff's Department against one of the protesters for making false statements to an officer is legitimate (unless an audio recording was made), since it will be probably be a case of several officers' words against one interloper.

I'm not into conducting acrobatic stunts for public attention, so it's a bit hard to empathize with the crane climbers (though easy to believe their rendering of the bungled "rescue" by Sheriff's deputies), but reading about a more recent incident that involved out-and-out harassment reminds one of the infamous reputation of Baltimore's cops wrought from Freddy Gray's killing and reflected on the TV series, "The Wire."  The targeted group in this case was not the urban, drug-dealing set, but the socially conscious, anti-fracking set.  It seems our Sheriff's Department is intolerable of either of those extremes and feels it is their duty to violate individuals' safety and constitutional liberties to protect Calvert County (and their own personal benefactors) from any intrusion on the speedy execution of a project voted down by local opinion.

While I think the Cove Point expansion is a white elephant and economics, rather than activism, will kill it, the picture these incidents paint of our Sheriffs make me very leery of the more permissible homeland security rules-of-engagement they will operate under going forward.  It wouldn't take much on your part to wind up under a jackboot that you once thought was your protection.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Chicken Shit

Turning our gaze across the Chesapeake Bay where chicken factories are one of the salient features of the landscape, a group of activists called Food & Water Watch has raised protests against the incineration of chicken manure.  You might think, with my advocacy of using chicken litter to make biochar, I would take exception to that position.  The truth is, incineration is not how you make biochar.

F&WW seems to mainly want to make CAFO's go away, but their agitation against the Renewable Fuel Standard inclusion of manure as a Tier 1 renewable fuel is ostensibly based on increased air pollution from incineration.  A long and twisted tale leads to the current state of dissatisfaction over the way we deal with this resource.

We can begin with Martin O'Malley who, back in his days as Maryland Governor, made a deal with Exelon Corporation to fund $50 million of a project to convert chicken litter to energy in exchange for allowing them to merge with Constellation Energy.  The company that got the award to head up the manure power project, Green Planet Power Solutions, failed miserably.  Now, other players are hoping the money is still there for a more competent outfit to give it a try.

In the meantime, the Maryland Department of Agriculture has begun to assist poultry farmers with a much smaller pot of money under the Animal Waste Technology Fund.  A company called Renewable Oil International MD, LLC has been granted $1.2 million in support of developing a manure-fed energy system that makes biochar as a by-product.

The major action, however, is where a company called AgEnergy USA is talking with Perdue about making a $200 million manure-fired energy plant.

Biochar has been little but an afterthought to some of these projects, which leads me back to the F&WW argument.  Biochar is not made by incineration, but by pyrolysis, of which a particular method is gasification.  Pyrolysis involves heating material in a oxygen-deficient environment.  That means less NOx is produced and particulate matter is also kept low, depending on the speed of the process.   F&WW should like that.  I hope they do, because I think I like Food & Water Watch and would like to link arms with them to work for more local agricultural systems.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


An encouraging trend in Maryland and much of the country toward more local self-sufficiency is the explosive growth of local beer brewing.  Even more encouraging is the 2012 passage of a law here that allows farmers special dispensation in order to brew and sell beer and other accompaniments. This reduces the logistics of delivering agricultural inputs to the brewers.  I noticed one such farm brewery close by that I would like to visit someday.  Calvert Brewing Company makes several types of beer, with their webpage telling you which types of hops go into each one.

Therein lies my interest; not so much in the drinking, but in the ingredients.  A few weeks ago, I introduced myself to the brewmaster at The Ruddy Duck Brewing Company in order to inquire as to the chances of relieving him of some of the spent grains used in making his beer.  He was happy to oblige.  I now bring him a 30 gallon container every week, which he fills with wet hops and grains out of one of his tanks.  He also gives the stuff away to a couple of local farmers.  They use it as a feed supplement.  I use it in compost (my dog won't eat it).  I do the same thing with 5 gallon buckets of coffee grounds that I get from the local doughnut shop.  Starbucks will give away big plastic trash bags full of spent grounds, so you don't even need to leave a bucket - just ask whenever you visit.  All this collecting activity is incidental to other errands nearby - same with the horse manure and the bags of raked leaves I grab from friendly neighbors who would otherwise pay for their disposal.

Of course, I collect my own leaves, coffee grounds, and dog manure (see previous post), but the volume is an order of magnitude higher with these other sources.  If I ever start home brewing beer, I will also be using the mash for composting, or perhaps for feeding chickens. As a first step, I will try growing some of the varieties of hops used by The Ruddy Duck or one of our other local breweries, in case they would like to buy them from me.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

(Sh)it's All Good

Avian flu is not the only disease that might come from raising chickens.  The common concern is e.coli. Some 60,000 cases of e.coli infections get treated every year in the U.S. and a few deaths do occur, but, though those rates are low, who wants to be sickened by some nasty bug?  Nasty, because the main source is animal excrement.

I could say "shit," but that's not what it is to me.  I treasure it and all other excrement because, in a display of nature's alchemical capabilities, crap can be transformed into black gold through the phenomenon of composting. There are several types of dung I currently collect. We have a backyard chicken owner in our church who lets us take their droppings to our community garden for fertilizer. I regularly visit a riding stables about 3 miles away to fill bags with horse dung and cart them home for composting.

Anyone who has pets can also compost their caca with a little forethought.  I bought a cheap, versatile Geobin composter for the sole purpose of composting the dog mess I clean up weekly. I now look forward to making those weekly rounds, especially with the handy, lightweight poop scooper my wife got for my birthday present. The warnings you hear about keeping pet poo out of your compost bin are valid.  However, once the segregated pet droppings undergo thermogenetic composting at 140 F or higher, and then remain in a pile for a year, they are safe to use in ornamental gardens.  It's this short heat and long cure cycle that keeps the risk of e.coli and numerous other pathogens low. In order to keep the pile from reeking, I simply layer sawdust on top of each week's deposit. I also add meats, fats, and bones from our kitchen scraps to the middle of this bin - another no-no for general composting.

The same approach can even be used for humanure, which requires more planning, preparation, and particularity.  The bins should be built to higher standards, a collection system is needed, and odor control must be thorough.  I'm not there yet, but am headed there.  It's not just about making better soil, it is also about protecting the environment.  Our current sewage systems don't do a good job of this.  Less is more when it comes to giving doo-doo the treatment it deserves.

Maryland's big business-friendly governor doesn't make those Eastern Shore farms compost chicken fecal matter before spreading it on the land.  Yet, another way to deal with pathogens from poultry litter is to make biochar out of it.  There is actually some governmental funding being applied to building up this capability for the sake of the Chesapeake Bay.  Biochar has also recently been ascribed the ability to sequester not only carbon, but e.coli as well.  Simply adding biochar to the soil can protect crops from carrying such pathogens.  It seems that combining thermogenic composting of any form of manure with only 10% biochar by volume would make the resultant product quite safe and result in a double win for the environment.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Chickening Out

If there is one food species other than crab that Maryland is known for, it is chickens.  Purdue, Tyson, and others run vast chicken farms on the Eastern Shore.  If one wants to raise chickens in their backyard, however, that can be problematic.  The state only requires that poultry keepers register in case of an avian flu outbreak.  Counties have their own rules.  Calvert county only limits the number of birds you can have if you are raising them as pets, rather than for production.  The hangup occurs with homeowners associations.  A good number of homes are part of HOA's, including our own.  I have searched the rules for several of Calvert county's HOA's and found that one thing they have in common is prohibition of poultry and livestock.

In a state that prides itself on supplying a good deal of the country's chicken meat, this is singular. The reasons may be that odor could reach neighbors, or noise, or disease.  These rules are not in step with the times, however, since cities these days commonly allow backyard chickens.  The list of concerns can be addressed with rules similar to the one concerning barking dogs - if a neighbor complains, the burden is on the purported offender to make it right.  Disease is only a concern insofar as a neighbor or their pet comes in contact with an infected bird.  This would not be a problem since the chickens would be fenced in. I think the real reason chickens aren't allowed is that HOA's still think they live (as the Monkee's put it so long ago) "in status symbol land."  Get over it!  Suburbia, (much less exurbia) was a huge mistake and a trap if you persist in the notion that you can escape the problems of the world by commuting out of it.

My daughter-in-law's parents in Greece claim to be ready for the difficulties ahead, in part because they raise vegetables and chickens.  I envy them.  They may fare better than us unless our HOA or future municipality wakes up to the very real possibility that these "good times" won't roll forever.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


Our house is in a homeowners association area known as the Chesapeake Ranch Estates (CRE).  The census designated place of Lusby, MD is inland and adjacent to our neighborhood.  We, and all but two other places in Calvert County, are beholden to the whims of the Board of County Commissioners for managing our tax dollars.

A petition has been submitted to the county government to allow our neighborhood and the adjoining commercial district to incorporate into a municipality, which would allow us to decide where some of our tax dollars are spent and to apply for grants and loans from state and federal agencies. If approved, our rural village will be known as Calvert Shores and, though late in coming, the change is a step in the right direction.  It would allow stronger enforcement of local rules, which have proven difficult for the HOA to maintain due to the enormous size of CRE.  It might also allow our village to begin the transition to a more resilient community, able to adapt to financial turmoil and natural disasters.  I think the name Calvert Shores is ingenious since FEMA may be more inclined to grant monetary relief from hurricane damage to a "shoreline" community.

The sticking point for approval of the petition appears to be whether the business owners outside of CRE would prefer to be part of the municipality.  If they will have to pay additional taxes as a result, my guess is that they will lobby with the county commissioners to reject it.  From what I've observed about our recent coteries of commissioners (one of whom owns a business in the area affected) businesses receive treatment as persons, while individuals receive treatment as subjects.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Calvert's Dirty Little Secrets

A worst-case scenario of a fire at the aforementioned Cove Point LNG plant is that a major leak could ignite and carry a fireball along the surface of the Chesapeake Bay up to 5 miles.  That is not the scenario that prompted the expenditure of $31 million at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant for a fifth layer of emergency back-up gear to avert a repeat of the disaster at Fukashima, Japan. A reciprocal scenario is the possibility of a large aircraft crashing into the nuclear plant resulting in an explosion that gets compounded by more explosions from the LNG plant.  Let's hope Murphy's Law doesn't evince itself by demonstrating the unintended linkage between these two contiguous facilities.

More likely, Calvert Cliffs will, like hundreds of other nuclear power plants, prove to be a financial mistake because of the cost of decommissioning and disposal.  Nuclear power is costly in so many ways that the U.S. has been practically in a nuclear plant construction moratorium for the past few decades.  Not as well known is that adding nuclear power is a poor solution to global warming since a great deal of greenhouse gasses are released in the process of mining uranium fuel.  Other forms of nuclear power, fusion in particular, are gaining substantial interest among deep-pocketed investors as a possible remedy to these issues.

In spite of all of that, I am interested in seeking employment at Calvert Cliffs.  I am nuclear-trained and experienced, the money is good, and someone's got to do it - at least until it becomes manifestly too expensive.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

We're Not Your Dumb Minions

It's disconcerting how energy issues have a way of intruding on stuff that's important to us.  In my own life, energy has come to the fore so often that I could count myself as a professional in some ways.  My naval career pulled me reluctantly through the nuclear power pipeline in both military, and later, civilian capacities.  Soon thereafter, I worked for Puget Sound Energy.  My next job involved power to the Internet, but that ended quickly after Enron's shenanigans were exposed.  My year in Iraq once again thrust me into the energy arena as part of the Energy Fusion Cell in Baghdad.

Even when energy isn't our unintended profession, it can get in our face.  So it was last night for viewers of the NFL Monday Night Football match in Charlotte, NC.  Right in the middle of their most important pastime, hundreds of thousands of fans had to stop and take notice of a couple of anti-fracking activists with a giant banner repelling down from the roof of the stadium.  Like the Wizard of Oz desperately urging his audience to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, the NFL soon tweeted that such a stunt was probably the most bizarre thing you will ever see at an NFL game.  The NFL shouldn't worry about their fans, though, because the protesters were cunningly seeking a much larger audience, not really the type of people who devote a major portion of their free time to watching a ball being squeezed out of opposing steroidal masses.

This is another instance of an energy issue being in my face, or close enough that I see it everyday that I drive out of my large residential development.  After you pass the gaggle of lofty crane booms half hidden behind a wall of trees on Cove Point Road in Southern Maryland, you soon find yourself looking at the Chesapeake Bay where an assortment of about 90 homes are arranged on a sandy flat near the water level. You are in the tiny, quiet Cove Point community which is spearheading this campaign, all out of proportion to their size, to shut down work on the Dominion Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export facility.  Note that this LNG facility has been in place for decades, but adding exporting capability will take two more years of construction and cost up to $4 Billion..., which takes us back to those protesters.

Their banner said Dump Dominion, and is aimed at Charlotte's darling Bank of America for their financing of the project. Investors should pay heed.  I have suspected since two years ago, when I spoke out publicly against the project to the Calvert County Board of Commissioners, that this whole effort is a shell game that is a part of the larger fracking Ponzi scheme.  We may have punished a few of the perpetrators of the Enron episode, but where did all the rest of the willing beneficiaries end up? Many, I assume, are still trying to squeeze money out of the ground.

My main reason for considering this particular project to be poorly conceived is that fracking has not proven to be nearly as productive over the long run as advertised.  Wells peter out quicker than Piccolo Pete on the 4th of July.  The $4 Billion will have been spent on standing up a white elephant in our remote part of Maryland when the company comes out with the news that, "Oh my, there is not enough natural gas, especially at these fallen prices, that will justify all of our sunk cost.  Government subsidies are the only way we will be able to carry it out and maintain good relations with our Japanese and Indian trading partners."

Originally a NIMBY campaign, the anti-expansion activists have begun to see the same issues just mentioned.  They have much more factual support for this view on the Dump Dominion page. In addition, just because it is natural gas, don't count on it being better for the environment. Methane is 25 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, so leaks are a big risk. When you add in the energy to transport, compress, and deliver the gas, it ends up being worse than burning coal.

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