Showing posts from January, 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 a…

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, wi…

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 c…

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 a…

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 nat…

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 heavi…

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 climat…

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 frombiomass, 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 comp…

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:

Coal mining faces the prospect of tighter regulation to restore streams in order to reduce aquifer pollution. Arch Coal, the most diversified coal mining company in the U.S. is about to be delisted by the NYSE. Coal's dirty nature and regulations at the federal level are having major effects across the industry.Maryland claims to have the toughest clean air regulations on the east coast, and they just added some additional restrictions on NOx emissions, 
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 unhea…

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…