Friday, January 29, 2016

Paradise Shift

A friend of ours used to be a landscape gardener in Florida.  When she moved to Maryland, I observed to her that landscapes in Maryland looked like they could use a Florida touch. After consulting the book Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and +Eric Toensmeier, I think I see why Florida's gardens do so well by comparison. The obvious factors are that Florida is flat, making it easier to work the land, there is more sunshine there, and that the many retirees in Florida are more inclined to gardening. As you move north from Florida, the ground stays flat for hundreds of miles, yet crops struggle to grow. As the book shows in Feature Article 4, there are areas of the country where the parent material of the soil (the C horizon) predominantly supplies the lowest amount of plant nutrients of almost anyplace in the world. One of those areas is the Southeast, from Georgia all the way up to Maryland. The C horizon there consists of a geological class called "ultisols."

Other advantages of Florida gardeners, i.e. the concentration of retirees and the sunshine, might be obviated by financial catharsis returning us to agrarianism and by a steady shift of climate northward with increases in global warming. While flat ground may be an advantage now, the low elevation of the state of Florida will also be its undoing, as it is eventually inundated with the rising ocean. On the other hand, the elevation of our land in Maryland may be just high enough to become waterfront property for our children to inherit.

In the meantime, dealing with the ultisol nature of our land will be an ongoing project. According to Jacke and Toensmeier, ultisols require "careful nourishment during early forest garden succession and tight nutrient cycling for the duration." When they wrote these words, the authors hadn't become familiar with biochar and its ability to serve as a nutrient sponge in the soil. Since then, however, Toensmeier has teamed up with +Jonathan Bates who is an advanced user of biochar. Together they have created an idyllic forest garden on just 0.1 acres of their Holyoke, MA residence. Their book, Paradise Lot, tells all about it. For a quick look, Geoff Lawton paid them a visit and posted a free (other than the price of registering your e-mail address) video to pique your appetite.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Accelerating Eden

Biochar will accelerate formation of topsoil, but ten years is a long time to wait. In my ignorance, five years ago I set up two garden beds using the native loamy sand that remained after our property addition was leveled. The results were so meager that forest vermin weren't even stopping by for lunch. The next few years were progressively more productive after successive additions of compost and biochar enriched the channery soil. Last year, I decided to expand with a new bed by using a method known as lasagna gardening. Also known as sheet mulching, lasagna gardening entails putting down layer after layer of organic matter on top of a poor growing surface, then waiting six months for it to break down enough to plant.  The up front work was considerable, but I was well rewarded with a bed that was more bountiful than the two that had been enriched year-by-year with biochar and compost.  (Biochar and compost were also ingredients in the lasagna garden.)  The takeaway is that, with poor soil, you don't have to wait ten years for a productive garden. You still have to add layers to a lasagna garden every year and dig it all in, but if biochar is included, even that can cease after ten years.

This year, I made two beds using sheet mulching and a very deep compost bed, following the same approach, in which I plan to grow mushrooms. My future forest garden patches will be grown out of sheet mulch, also. Perhaps the hardest part about lasagna gardening is getting enough of the right ingredients, green material, in particular. I've had to reach out to acquire enough of this high nitrogen material for my beds. I collect buckets full of used coffee grounds from a local doughnut shop and tons of horse manure from a local stables. It is best to pre-compost manure with straw or other brown material, before adding to the lasagna garden, in order to kill pathogens by the heat of composting. I'm looking at integrating my acquisition of green material onsite through raising chickens. Geoff Lawton explains how.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Got Tilth?

The shallowness of rivers out east (like the Patuxent) is a result of the relatively small drop in elevation from the headwaters to the continental shelf, which is relatively broad and shallow on the Atlantic coast. Our land in Southern Maryland is part of the Coastal Plain formed from ancient ocean sediments topped by glacial till. In more recent times, logging and agricultural practices allowed humus-laden forest soil to be washed into the rivers, leaving silty river bottoms and depleted sandy soils for today's farmers.

If you don't want to assume that you have sandy soil, it is worth taking half an hour to perform a simple test of your soil's texture. Soil texture is the most important feature of soil health. You want soil that is loamy in order to grow most crops. In performing the steps in the flowchart, use soil from a 6-inch band underneath any loose organic matter (the O layer) that may be covering your garden. This A layer would also be the soil layer to use for collecting samples to send to a lab for occasional soil tests. Lab tests are necessary to know how to correct for most nutrient deficiencies, but initial adjustments to soil texture (based on your ribbon test results) are foremost.

Thing about adjusting soil texture is that it is difficult in the short-term. You can't just throw sand into a clay soil to make loam. It might become hard like concrete. If you add loads of compost to sand, you will lose a majority of the nutrients and humus to leaching. Correcting the nutrient and textural deficiencies of a sandy soil through amendment with compost will require about 100 years of incremental compost additions. The best way I know to address non-ideal soil texture is to add biochar.  In the case of sandy soil, which will have nutrient deficiencies due to leaching, the biochar should be pre-composted in order to capture some nutrients and imbue it with a thriving population of microbes. Biochar should reduce the time required to correct texture problems by a factor of 10.

In preparation for winter storm Jonas, I emptied my rickety, elevated, wood drying rack of kindling into a huge pile. Doing so helped me to see that I could dry a whole lot more kindling by making this my usual practice, because the wood will stay dry in such a large pile. Heretofore, my biochar production rate had been limited by my drying rack capacity. Now, I could easily double my production rate by charring simultaneously with two kilns once I have a steady reserve of dry kindling piles. As with last year, 2016 looks like it will bring another Moore's Law improvement to my biochar productivity. Anyone in my area want to purchase some biochar? Or do you have 100 years worth of patience?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Nature Preserves (Big and Small)

Coal isn't the only embattled resource harbored by federal lands. In Oregon, cattle grazing ranges and timber are flashpoints for disputes arising out of economic vs. environmental foci. While federal jurisdiction is not as widespread as Oregon's, much of Maryland's economic activity takes place on property owned by the federal government. Presumably, should the union disintegrate following a slide into rebellion, states or regions will inherit these jurisdictions, but they may have to fight locally interested militias like Oregon's in order to maintain control. That won't be difficult for most of Maryland's federal lands, as most are owned and operated by federal departments involved in national security.  The Patuxent River Naval Air Station (home to my former employer, Naval Air Systems Command), the Aberdeen Proving Ground, and Fort Meade (home to the National Security Agency) are among the largest.

One prominent resource of interest to our future economy and our environment is the Patuxent River, which is largely held in the public commons. Adjacent to Fort Meade is a large chunk of federal land called the Patuxent Research Refuge (not to be confused with the Patuxent River State Park or county parks such as Prince George's Patuxent Park).  The navigable reach of the Patuxent River ends short of these environmental preserves, as the British discovered to their dismay during the War of 1812. Their largest vessels had to stop well below the headwaters, disembarking troops at Benedict, MD in preparation for their assault on the nation's capital.  That won't stop shallow-draft boats and barges from inland commerce up the Patuxent in the fossil-fuel deprived future that soon awaits us, especially as sea level rise backs up the tidal force to maintain wider and deeper channels all along its course. Environmental preservation will take a back seat to economic necessity in order to move goods via waterways in and out of populated areas, but that will be balanced out by the return to the wild of some areas which are economically unsustainable.

Developed landscapes that fall into neglect are vulnerable to invasive species, which also often include pioneer scrub plants such as thistles. Returning to a more beautifully advanced stage of wild can be fostered by a method now being practiced at the Patuxent Research Refuge by Master Gardeners. It is being taught to Master Gardeners in many counties through a series of workshops for creating foundation seedbeds of native plants. The process includes (1) Native plant rescue/seed saving (2) Seed sowing, and (3) Maintenance and propagation of foundation beds. Planting a foundation seed bed and collecting the seed from the mature plants allows a gardener to propagate natives via:

  • starting plugs or pots of local genotype native plants, (for community greening projects and MG plant sales and demo gardens) 
  • providing parks with genetically appropriate seed for restoration of areas after invasives removal or other soil disturbance 
  • sowing native meadows 
  • making wildflower seed packets, or 
  • selling to produce income or raise funds.
It doesn't require a nature preserve to carry out this small-scale approach to environmental preservation. Gardeners like me can dedicate a little of their gardens and time to restoring natural beauty at home and in their communities. Groups throughout the country are holding seed swaps on or around the last weekend in January. I plan to participate in our county's event this weekend, where one of the seeds on my shopping list will be a native for my foundation seedbed.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

It's NOT Alright Now - In fact it's a Gas

Pointing out that liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipped overseas causes more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than domestically burning an equally energetic amount of coal omits the fact that, in Maryland's case, we are the second largest exporter of coal in the country. A case could be made that exporting LNG will be less carbon polluting than exporting coal if the coal shipments were set to decrease as LNG shipments increased. Since Arch Coal just filed for bankruptcy and President Obama has made the executive decision to ban coal extraction on federal lands, it's becoming more likely that the trend of decreasing coal exports will continue, lending support to this rationalization for LNG exports.

No more coal allowed out of 30% of U.S. ground

Obversely, while Maryland's endogenous electricity generation from natural gas amounts to only 5 to 15% of its total generating capacity, 44% of Maryland's electricity comes from outside the state. The U.S., as a whole, relies on natural gas for at least 27% of it's electricity generation.  As coal declines and natural gas prices slump, the amount of U.S. capacity for generating electricity from the former is likely to decline, raising the reliance on natural gas and exposing large sections of the country (including Maryland) to dramatic price swings in electricity. The reputation of natural gas (fracked gas, especially) is sullied each week by infrastructure failures that cause egregious violations of public health and safety. We should do our best to divest ourselves of gas power, while taking additional measures to prevent leaks like the catastrophe in California.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Home and Hearth

In a state that is one of the top three in home mortgage foreclosures and in a neighborhood that has greater than 10% vacancy, it's hard to justify investments in one's dwelling unless you are destined to remain in place regardless of the market. It becomes a speculative decision which includes factors of the local economy, energy prices, and climate-driven demographic shifts.

In our case, I believe these factors favor energy upgrades to our home only as a long-term investment or if the energy savings payoff begins within three years. I see our local economy continuing to be buoyed up by the national security apparatus, of which our portion is Naval Air Systems (NAVAIR). I see grid electricity becoming more scarce as the fracking bubble bursts and coal gets left in the ground. Finally, the climate-driven migration of westerners to the east will probably take a decade or so to begin.

The net result looks to me like the value of homes in Southern Maryland will not fall too heavily before they start to recover sometime around 2025. Our own lower tier neighborhood, the Chesapeake Ranch Estates (CRE), will fall harder and recover slower than most. Becoming a municipality would ameliorate CRE's decline, but that looks politically dubious. However, if the Board of County Commissioners realizes how badly they ignored our concerns over the Cove Point gas plant LNG expansion, they will approve our municipality petition as consolation.

There are a host of things you can do to save energy in your home. We have a dishwasher that costs us an estimated $35/year in excessive energy usage over the newer Energy Star models. It recently leaked slowly into our kitchen floor and through the basement ceiling, causing over $10,000 in damage. After twisting the stingy arms of HMS, our home warranty company, I expect this old dishwasher to be repaired, after which I plan to sell it and get a newer model (and fire HMS - they should have replaced it outright).

While solar power looks slightly uneconomical for us at this point, I would consider installing a solar water heater. Water heating consumes about 18% of a typical home's energy. Over three years, cutting my electric bill by 18% would total to about $1,000.  Perhaps a DIY installation of a solar water heater would make sense.

Before that, the project that looks most lucrative is to augment our electric heat pump with a wood-burning stove that could potentially shave a whopping 45% off our electric bill! So now we are looking at about $3,000 saved over three years. Rather than rely on pellet fuel, I will have to look into rocket stoves.  I produce lots of kindling in the process of making biochar. If it can make my home heating costs disappear, making more sticks would be no problem. I can picture us being warm all evening in the basement watching the glow of a real fire, then retiring upstairs with the risen heat to comfort us throughout the night. It's a picture that, in the end, makes mechanized heat less desireable than the more labor-intensive way.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Getting into the Sun

The Paris Climate agreement will push everyone more in the direction of renewable energy, and Maryland blogger John Michael Greer thinks 2016 will be a breakout year for the solar industry in spite of the weak economic case for the technology.

I just finished looking into the feasibility of solar power for our church's overpriced electricity and, to my dismay, found out that the financial case wasn't there despite all the hype that has been given to going solar.  I went on to look at the possibility that solar had become affordable enough to put on my own roof and, even with all the government incentives, it wasn't going to pay off.  

I would still encourage anyone interested in living in their home for a decade or more to look into the possibility.  A good time to install panels is right after you roof.  A sunny location is a must (my limitation is shade from trees, though that could change as I replace forest with forest gardens). In Maryland's ever more humid climate, you may be able to save the most by using Cadmium-Tellurium panels made by First Solar. 

Rather than immediately consult with a solar installer, you can see for yourself using a tool similar to what they might use to find out whether your situation favors the investment. SMECO also provides many useful tips to help you in the decision and the process.

You aren't going to save the planet by going solar, but your life could be much more bearable in the fossil fuel limited future when power rationing could be the order of the day.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Electro-technology Dreams

Offshore wind turbines may or may not appear off the coast of Maryland.  The US Wind lease of over 125 square miles of ocean to build a 750 MW wind power array by 2020 would be a first for the U.S. In spite of the apparent progress (ocean surveys, turbine purchase actions), financial headwinds face Italy where US Wind's parent company, Renexia, resides. Just recovering from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Italy will face the coming worldwide recession too early.  Renexia's lack of financial transparency is not at all reassuring.

Aside from solar and wind, generating electricity on a residential scale from biomass, fuel cells, or closed-conduit hydropower include the opportunity to net-meter (that is, sell power on the grid) in Maryland.  Micro-combined heat and power (CHP) installations also qualify. Micro CHP (not to be confused with microchip) is exactly the kind of power that can be generated from a heat source such as those used to make biochar.  A start-up company called NanoConversion Technologies is coming out with a thermoelectric generator that they say beats Stirling engines, cost-wise.  The problem of capturing and using the waste heat from biochar could thereby be made a lot more feasible, since the operating temperature is near that for these devices. The components, which hold sodium, alumina, hot and cold fluids, and electro-magnetic fields, seem like they would cost considerably, so economics may prove to be the difficulty with this technology, as well.  However, they show humanitarian relief as a possible application of the device, so I may be pleasantly surprised at the price-tag.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Coal's Downturn

In some states, coal is being run out of business, but the "war on coal" hasn't reached that far yet in Maryland. We still make about half of our electricity from coal. Two coal-fired plants (1,200 MW in Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties) are expected to be retired by 2017 due to environmental regulations. In recent developments:

but there are still seven coal powered electric plants in the state.  Having the toughest air pollution restrictions on the east coast is admirable, but Baltimore still suffers from unhealthy air (a plight common to 85% of the world's population).

Yet, the nominally cleaner natural gas has its own set of problems. In the way of pollution, its greenhouse gas effect is 30 times worse, pound for pound, than CO2. It sometimes (more than we realize) gets loose on its own, like the 1 cubic mile of 1,500 psi gas being released from cracks that recently developed in a storage facility pipe under Los Angeles. As I pointed out in my last post, the prospect of less fracking (who wants to live in Oklahoma now, earthquake center of the U.S?) and the need to follow-through with plans to reduce global emissions makes investment in more gas-powered generation look pretty short-sighted. Solar and off-shore wind are looking better and better.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Fuel Switching

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's prognosis for 2016 sees commodities, rather than banks, as the locus of the next Lehman moment.  Countries and corporations whose continuance depends on stability of certain commodities are at most risk.  The U.S. economy is probably diverse enough to ride out the effects of commodity price swings, but some states will suffer more than others.  Maryland's diverse economy is among the strongest, so we don't need to be concerned that coal will continue to fall in production from its peak of 5 million below the current 2 million tons/year across 60 mines, all located in the two westernmost counties.  (John Michael Greer's Cumberland is at risk, though.)

The commodity that puts Calvert County's economy at risk is natural gas, though little is produced in Maryland. When Dominion Resources sought their approval for constructing the LNG export facility at Cove Point, our county commissioners acceded to deferring tax revenue from Dominion until the plant began to ship product.  That probably won't happen until 2018, if at all.

Initially, my doubts about the prospects of exporting natural gas were based on the high rates of depletion from fracking wells, leading to a precipitous drop in productivity.  While that alone may preclude exports a couple years from now, there are even more reasons to doubt now and they stem from economic causes.

Commodities volatility seems to favor exports from Cove Point, since fewer export facilities will likely be built in such an environment than the 18 originally envisioned.  Yet, the same volatility is causing mayhem among natural gas drillers.  As pointed out in my previous post, Chesapeake Energy, the second largest producer in the U.S., is headed for the junk pile.  Many others, whose business models were based on low-interest leverage and speculative land leases, will suffer the same fate.  With so many companies going under, the growth of fracked gas that has occurred over the past 5 years will level off and decline.  With coal being black-balled as a fuel due to its effect on the world's climate, it, too, will quickly decline in use.  This puts the onus on natural gas to fill some of the domestic demand.  Since 2000, the share of electricity produced by natural gas has risen 10%, replacing coal as the fuel.  The momentum of this fuel switching will be maintained, though farsighted power companies will opt for renewable sources instead, given the limits of natural gas reserves.

Just one-third of natural gas is used for electricity production.  The other uses are mainly for industrial and residential heating processes.  Something's got to give.  We don't have enough natural gas (especially if fracking is deemed environmentally untenable) to follow the current growth trend. Conservation will smooth our descent, but remember we also have lots of wood. It has an energy density about 1/3 of oil, but any able-bodied man with a sharp ax can get all he needs.

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