Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Backyard garden reality revisited, part 1: can my current garden feed me for a year?

 

Late summer color provided by sweet coneflowers.

In 2013 I critiqued a concept that has become embedded in discussions about living sustainably: that it is possible to grow all the required calories and nutrients needed to maintain health for a vegan diet for one adult in a space of 1400 square feet or less. David Duhon designed gardens intended to do just that using the medium yields for crops in John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables and published his results in the book One Circle. While I find the procedure Duhon used to be valuable in analyzing the nutritional possibilities of a small garden space, a careful reading of that book and subsequent garden design publications from Ecology Action shows that these are thought experiments only. The most recent small garden diet design I’ve seen from a source outside of Ecology Action is also a thought experiment. I wanted to know if a real gardener in a particular place could obtain high enough yields to grow a complete diet for a vegan adult in 1400 square feet or less while also practicing sustainable gardening principles such as crop rotation and soil re-mineralization. I promptly volunteered myself for the role of that real gardener and have spent the last 8 growing seasons seeking to answer the question for my suburban St. Louis, Missouri garden. Now I have learned enough to wrap up the project in this and the next few posts. I’ll begin with my current garden design and ask what percentage of an adult vegan’s diet for a year it can supply.

 

I garden in a fenced-off area of the backyard with full sun exposure containing twelve 100 square foot beds separated by paths. This post discusses the reasons for my adoption of the gardening techniques and soil re-mineralization methods described by Steve Solomon rather than those promoted by Ecology Action. Each report on the previous year’s garden such as the most recent report includes the spacing and timing for each crop I grew that year and the yield I obtained. I have set up the garden so that the group of three beds of corn rotates as a block through the nine beds planted to grains or vegetables, so that any one bed in the garden is grown to corn one year, then to something other than corn for the next two years. Each of the other beds is rotated so that no bed is grown to crops of the same plant family two years in a row. This feature addresses one of the major flaws in Duhon’s designs, the inability to rotate crops properly. My garden design addresses the climate limitations of my location, such as the inability to overwinter any crops other than potato onions and garlic in an open garden. The very short springs and autumns I experience restrict double-cropping, a feature of Duhon’s designs that does not translate well to this climate.

 

The beds in the 2021 garden are planted as follows. Each bed is 4 feet by 25 feet, for a total of 100 square feet of growing space in each bed.

·      One bed of annual and perennial flowers and herbs, including sorrel, the only crop eaten as a vegetable from this bed

·      One bed of strawberries

·      One bed of raspberries

·      Three beds of popcorn, two of which also include naked-seeded pumpkin vines

·      One bed consisting of peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and basil

·      One bed of squash-family plants (summer and winter squash including zucchini, cucumbers, and muskmelons)

·      One bed of overwintering potato onions and garlic. After June harvest, this bed was replanted to a mix of zinnia, sunflowers, cucumbers, soybeans (for edamame), and zucchini

·      One bed of bean-family plants (green and lima beans and cowpeas)

·      One bed of potatoes. After the potato harvest this bed was planted to an autumn crop of greens and roots, mostly from the cabbage family but also to include lettuce

·      One bed of spring-planted greens and roots, including lettuce, cabbage, bok choy, carrots, beets, and leeks

 

The spreadsheet below includes the names of each variety of each crop that I am growing this year; whether or not the crop is a grain (G), dry bean (B) or special root crop (R) according to Ecology Action; a yield I have obtained for that crop, in pounds per 100 square feet; and the number of square feet of garden space I have allotted for that crop in the 2021 garden.

 

Because I am in the middle of the growing season, I only have a yield for 2021 for the crops I have already removed from the garden. On the spreadsheet, those crops are in bold type. Some of the varieties I’m growing this year are new to me. Those crops are in italic type. For these crops, I have reported the best yield I have obtained for a similar variety that I have grown.

 

For the rest of the crops, I have reported the best yield I have so far obtained for that crop. Some of the crops may yield better than that this year. Some may not yield as well. Thus the best I can do is approximate the percentage of a complete diet for one vegan adult that I will grow this year. You’ll soon see that this is good enough to answer the question.

 

In the case of popcorn, some animal – I suspect squirrels – has already eaten every single ear on every plant. In its place, I have substituted the dent corn variety that I have grown in previous years and the best yield I obtained for it, which occurred in 2019. Thus the results given in the spreadsheet are actually an overestimate of the nutrition that the 2021 garden will provide. However, including it gives an upper limit to how much nutrition this garden design is capable of providing when everything goes right.

 

How To Grow More Vegetables includes the calories, protein (in grams), and calcium (in milligrams) for each crop listed in the Master Charts. Using the total weight of each crop that I have already harvested or that I can reasonably expect to harvest, I multiplied the per-pound values given in HTGMV by the weight of each crop in pounds to obtain the total calories, protein, and calcium provided by that crop. Summing up the columns for each of those provides the total amount of calories, protein, and calcium that I estimate I will harvest from the garden in 2021. Then I divided that number by 365 to obtain the daily amount of each, to compare with the dietary needs chart on pages 69-71 in One Circle

 


 

No, my current garden will not supply me with sufficient calories, protein, or calcium to sustain me for a full year. In fact, it falls quite far from that standard in both calories and protein, by a factor of three to five. In terms of calcium it does somewhat better, supplying me with close to half of what I need for a year. Since two adults are eating from this garden, the garden falls even farther short of supplying us with a complete diet.

 

Why does Ecology Action highlight grains, dry beans, and certain root crops in their gardening method? A look at the spreadsheet gives the answer. The corn crop provided by far the highest amount of calories compared to any other crop – more than half of the total, in fact. Potatoes, one of the special root crops, were also a significant source of calories, as were soybeans even though they were eaten green rather than dry. If the cowpeas had yielded better they also would have been a significant source of calories. The corn, potatoes, and soybeans were also the most significant sources of protein. Garlic and leeks provided good amounts of calories for the small amount harvested. This is why Ecology Action recommends allotting about 60% of garden space to grain crops (this category also includes dry beans), about 30% to high yielding root crops such as potatoes, garlic, and leeks, and about 10% to everything else. Such a design, however, has the disadvantage of not allowing for crop rotation unless you include grain crops that are not in the grass family, such as sorghum or quinoa, in the grain crop area in sufficient quantity to avoid growing plants in the same crop family in any bed two or more years in a row.

 

Using the current garden design, then, my garden would need to be four times the size it now is, or 4400 square feet, to provide a just-sufficient amount of calories and protein for my needs. Could a change in design using the same crops that also allows for proper crop rotation reduce the space needed to grow a complete diet? I’ll investigate that possibility in the next post.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

A slice of garden life: the harvest of July 22

I have received a request to post pictures of a recent harvest to this blog. Since I’m still in the process of writing a post on the nutritional content of this year’s garden and whether or not it would be sufficient for a complete diet for a vegan adult for a year, this is a good time for a quick post that’s heavy with pictures. The pictures below show the complete harvest of July 22.

 

At this time of year I’m primarily harvesting squashes, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Although I could have chosen to harvest some beets and carrots as well, we have enough vegetables in the refrigerator to leave the beets and carrots in the ground for now.

 

With that said, let’s begin with the cucumbers and zucchini I harvested on the 22nd. You’ll see them below. The basket is 11.5 inches in diameter. Mike added the cucumbers to the pickling container for us to eat as pickles later on. We use some of the zucchini raw, adding tomatoes, onions, and carrots to make a salad. The rest of the zucchini is used in stir-fried dishes.

 


 

 

In the next picture, the same basket holds six ‘Desi’ summer squash. These will all find their way into stir-fries.

 


 

 

Below you’ll see two of the four heirloom tomato varieties I’m growing in the same basket. The yellow tomato with red stripes is ‘Old German.’ It’s not as productive as the others, but we enjoy it for its flavor and contrasting color in the summer salads I described. By itself the tomato weighs nearly one pound! The surrounding tomatoes are ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ a workhorse of a tomato in this climate. It combines great taste with no green shoulders, depriving the compost pile of some material and leaving more tomato for us to eat.

 


 

 

In the next picture you’ll see ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes in the same basket. They are larger, more variable in shape and size, and darker in color than the ‘Arkansas Traveler’ tomatoes. Like the ‘Old German’ tomatoes, the ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes sport green shoulders. By green shoulders, I mean that when these tomatoes are fully ripe, the area around the blossom end will retain some green color and unripe flavor. We cut the green shoulders off and compost them. For both of these tomatoes, the taste is worth putting up with the green shoulders.

 


 

 

Each of the three tomatoes already shown find their way into salads, with excesses being turned into tomato sauce. The final tomato variety shown below in the same basket, ‘Roma VF’ is a paste tomato that we use exclusively for tomato sauce. It has less pronounced flavor than the others, but it also has less water so it adds volume to the sauce.

 


 

 

We are still waiting for some other summer crops to size up (green beans, eggplants, potatoes) or ripen (sweet peppers, raspberries). Today, the 25th, I harvested the first ripe red sweet pepper. Within the next couple of weeks we should be harvesting the first crops of each of the rest of these.

 

That’s all for now. Enjoy whatever is in season where you live!


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Miscellany

 

Strawberries!

 

While you’re waiting for the next post, I have a couple of announcements.

 

First, the Sustainable Backyard Network is holding the Sustainable Backyard Tour as a virtual event this year. Mike’s and my yard will be included on the virtual tour, which takes place on Sunday, July 11th on the Network’s YouTube channel. Once you’re there, click on Uploads to see the videos of each yard on the Tour. The one I’m in is called The Intelligent Gardener. You won’t go wrong watching any of them, because they are full of good ideas for people with small spaces, large spaces, and anything in between. I’ll be watching all of them soon!

 

Second, as of this month Blogger is no longer supporting the FeedBurner app that allowed you to follow this blog through email. I’m in the process of moving to FeedBlitz for the follow-by-email function. Those of you who receive email notice of new posts may find you receive two emails (or maybe more) of the same post while the changeover occurs. I hope that you’ll be patient with me as I become comfortable with the new app.

 

Thank you for reading and for your comments! See you later this month with the next post.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

What I'm asking the garden in 2021

 

The garden on May 4. The bed to the left has lettuce, mustard greens, beets, leeks, carrots, cabbage, and bok choy. The bed on the right has potatoes.

Since 2018 I have been asking my garden if some potential soil amendments that I produce at home can replace some of the soil amendments that I import into the garden. Worm castings, one of the potential soil amendments for replacing nitrogen, turned out to be too difficult to apply and too low potency for the small amount of it that I have available. I have also trialed two other materials, urine as a source of nitrogen and wood ashes as a source of calcium, phosphorus, and potassium.

 

In the last two years the garden told me that urine is as effective as cottonseed meal to provide nitrogen for some kinds of plants, such as corn and tomatoes. In other cases, such as for root crops, it may be less effective than cottonseed meal. It also told me that I can use as much as seven pounds of wood ashes in a garden bed and not raise the pH too much, but that it would be preferable to use that much on crops that will make good use of all the potassium that it brings. However, having only used that large quantity of wood ashes on one crop family, the alliums (garlic and potato onions) that did not make the best use of the excess potassium, I did not know how it might affect other crops.

 

The first two beds I plant each spring are the potato bed and the bed with greens and roots. I had some cottonseed meal left over from 2019. These crops seem to do better with cottonseed meal than urine. Rather than take the time to look more closely at the soil test results, I used the usual amount of cottonseed meal and just enough wood ashes to make up a magnesium deficiency, using Tennessee brown rock to provide the rest of the phosphorus the beds needed. Then I got those plants into the ground while I gave the whole issue more thought.

 

Mineral deficits from soil testing. The results from this spring are in the rightmost column.

The garden is settling into a pattern of a few small deficits each season after 8 years of re-mineralization. Organic matter is in the range of 3 to 4%, which is about the best that I can expect for the amount of compost I add and the heat and length of the growing season. The pH is in the right range for vegetables and the TCEC shows that the light silt loam nature of the soil remains unchanged despite adding purchased humates. On the other hand, sulfur and phosphorus deficits have dropped to low levels. Part of the reason I am adding the humates is that they can adsorb and hold sulfur and phosphorus anions; it may be working. The lower the phosphorus deficit, the more likely it is that I can remedy it by adding sufficient wood ashes without needing to add such a large amount as to increase the pH above 7.0. The humates are stable so I should be able to stop adding them at some point. Magnesium is a little deficient, but I can easily add enough wood ashes to remedy it. The sulfur deficiency is easy to remedy with gypsum, the boron deficiency is easy to remedy with borax, and the zinc deficiency is too small to worry about.

 

Having noticed all that, I decided there were two questions for this year’s garden.

1.     Do I want to use cottonseed meal or urine to add nitrogen to the garden beds this year? Cottonseed meal is easy to apply when I prepare each bed, but I have to buy it. I make my own urine, but last year’s results suggest that I don’t make enough of it to provide all the nitrogen that the spring and summer crops need. I could ask Mike to contribute, but it’s harder to control the amount I add in that case.

2.     Do I want to use a rock source of phosphorus or use wood ashes to make up the phosphorus deficiency? Both are easy to apply when I prepare the bed. I have to buy the rock source. We have wood ashes from the wood stove to make use of, and this year adding a little over 2 pounds to each bed is enough to remedy the phosphorus and magnesium deficiency. Most likely I have enough wood ashes for all of the beds. I will be adding more calcium to an already existing excess if I use wood ashes, but we get rain during the growing season so it would be almost impossible to add so much as to create an undesirable layer of caliche. It’s only a 10% or so excess anyway.

 

Eventually I realized that I can ask the garden to answer the following questions this year.

 

1.     In the bed in which I planted the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, I added the full 2 plus pounds of wood ashes to remedy the phosphorus and magnesium deficiencies. This bed produced good yields last year with urine as the nitrogen source, so I will collect urine for it this year as well. It will be easy to collect the 15 or so days’ worth of urine that it will need between now and the beginning of October. This bed will answer the question of the effect of adding both urine and wood ashes on yield, taste, and disease and insect pressure.

2.     I will use the full 2 plus pounds of wood ashes and cottonseed meal on all remaining beds as long as I have enough wood ashes to do so. All of these beds will answer the question of the effect of using wood ashes along with cottonseed meal on yield, taste, and disease and insect pressure. Only on the bed with garlic and potato onions have I done that before and I used about a factor of three more wood ashes that time.

 

That’s all for now. See you in another month or so!

 

 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Update and link to interview of me

Accumulating snow on April 20. Note the redbuds and dogwood in bloom.

Last week Mike and I experienced accumulating snow. It's certainly not the first time it has snowed in April in St. Louis. In fact it's not that uncommon to receive snow in early April. However, in the 36 Aprils I have lived in St. Louis, none has included an accumulating snow after the middle of the month, until this one. 

It was bad enough to receive snow, but worse that it was accompanied by two freezes, on the mornings of April 21 (30F) and April 22 (32F). All of the fruit trees except for the persimmons had flowered and leafed out. Only the pawpaw trees show damage to the leaves and flowers, so it could have been worse. I won't know how significantly this year's pawpaw crop has been affected for some time.

This isn't the post I promised you on what I'm asking the garden this year. After I complete another writing commitment I will write that post. But I do want to draw your attention to Lisa Brunette and her blog Cat In The Flock. Lisa and I met through a mutual interest in John Michael Greer's work and found out we share gardening and blogging interests and write about our gardens, among other topics, on our blogs. Lisa and her husband Anthony Valterra live in another of St. Louis' many suburbs. In the last year or so we've become friends, and I've become a fan of Lisa's blog (you'll see it over on the blogroll). If you enjoy my blog, you'll enjoy Lisa's as well. I really like her and Anthony's sense of style as well as the practical work that they do. They make living with LESS beautiful!

Recently, as Lisa explains on her blog, she interviewed me and will feature that interview on three posts. You'll find the first post here. The next two go live on May 2 and May 5. I encourage you to read them and to enjoy the other posts on Lisa's blog as well. And thanks to Lisa for the interviews and for her work!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Peak infrastructure, peak oil

 

In the previous post I discussed the severe cold wave in Texas that came close to crashing the electrical grid for almost the entire state. The estimated insured loss from the deep freeze in Texas and surrounding states will exceed $10 billion. That doesn’t include the additional cost for the extreme rate hikes in electricity and natural gas when many of the plants went offline; ratepayers will be stuck paying for that for years. Nor does it include the estimated costs for freeze-proofing any of these systems before the next deep freeze occurs.

 

If the Texas electric grid were the only bit of aging infrastructure that is in desperate need of upgrading, this wouldn’t be a problem outside of Texas. But it isn’t, not by a long shot. The ASCE’s collective grade for all US infrastructure is C-. That’s an average; some of our infrastructure gets D+, D, and even D- grades. Those of you who want to know the grades for the infrastructure in your own state can find it on the linked page.

 

True, it’s not as if the ASCE is a disinterested observer. Their members stand to benefit financially from upgrading the country’s infrastructure, so I expect them to take the most pessimistic view of the situation. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t already paying for the infrastructure we’ve got and the upgrades already occurring. And it doesn’t mean that our infrastructure doesn’t need any upgrading; just ask anyone who lost electrical service to freezes, the risk of wildfire, severe storms, and the like, or anyone who lives downstream of a dam that is at risk of failure, or anyone who has to play dodge-a-pothole every time they drive.

 

From time to time, our politicians take notice of our infrastructure. President Biden has recently proposed a $2 trillion plan that addresses deficiencies in many of the areas highlighted in the ASCE report. (It also contains some items that aren’t strictly infrastructure upgrades but are intended to appeal to the Democratic party base.)

 

Most politicians, and most people, probably favor improving infrastructure, especially the infrastructure that is closest to them and most obviously in need. But the work can’t be done for free. To pay for the plan, Biden proposes to raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, a proposal that the Democratic party base will generally favor. However, the Business Roundtable, made up of the CEOs of the nation’s biggest companies, and the US Chamber of Commerce have already denounced the tax rate increase, proposing instead that user fees such as highway and bridge tolls fund the improvements. I’m pretty certain that most ordinary people, who are already paying for infrastructure maintenance and improvement via drastic increases in utility bills (our sewer rates have increased fourfold in the past 17 years and we are being asked to vote on April 6 for yet another rate hike to pay for a bond issue to fund more work on the sewer system), aren’t inclined to agree to higher taxes and user fees to fund the improvements. If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that this proposal isn’t going anywhere in its current form. No Republican will vote for it, and enough Democrats won’t that it won’t make it out of the Senate, even if it gets through the House, and I’m not sure it will get that far. Possibly a smaller-scaled infrastructure bill will make it through, but such a bill won’t be enough to do more than fund a few pet projects in a few districts whose politicians have enough influence to direct dollars toward them.

 

Having noted what should be reasonably obvious – that we aren’t willing to pay to maintain all of the infrastructure that we already have – let’s take a look at the entirely new infrastructure that will be required to expand the use of so-called “green” electricity. “Green” electricity means electricity that is supposed to release smaller amounts of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the air than is produced from burning fossil fuels. The technologies usually considered in this category are solar and wind powered plants, hydropower (dams), and hydrogen produced from splitting water by solar power and used to power fuel cells that produce electricity. Hydropower is already using all of the best sites, and there are attempts to remove some of those dams for environmental reasons, so I won’t consider it any further. Solar and wind power not only require the solar and wind plants that don’t already exist to be built, but they also require a major upgrade of the existing electrical grid to accommodate the intermittent nature of these two sources, which I have argued above is at best unlikely.

 

As for hydrogen, the hip new source of “green” electricity, rather than my addressing all the reasons that this is just one more subsidy dumpster, one more rathole for government money, I’ll just direct you over to this blog. Read it and then try to imagine all of the infrastructure that will be required for hydrogen fuel cells to make enough electricity to run enough cars to matter, at an efficiency that is less than that of a standard electric vehicle.

 

And as if all that isn’t enough, every bit of current infrastructure that must be at least maintained, if not upgraded, and all of the bright shiny new “climate-saving” infrastructure that is being pushed as absolutely necessary by the climate-emergency crowd, requires energy and materials to do so. Specifically, diesel fuel, produced from oil, goes directly or indirectly into maintaining or upgrading existing infrastructure, not to mention producing and deploying and maintaining new infrastructure. I understand why you may not have paid much attention considering what the past year or so has brought to us, but it turns out that we may well have passed peak oil more than two years back. Check out the graphic near the beginning of this Energy Bulletin of world liquid fuel (oil) production (the blue line on the graph). Notice the slow rise to a production peak in the 4th quarter of 2018. Notice that the highest production peak in 2019 didn’t quite match that of the 4th quarter of 2018. Then comes the familiar rapid drop of oil production and consumption in 2020 resulting from the measures put in place in reaction to COVID-19 that were intended to bring us back to “normal.” You’ll notice that the forecast for oil production in 2021 doesn’t make it up to levels we last saw in 2017 until late in the year, and that was, in retrospect, almost surely optimistic given the forecast was made last December when the concern about vaccine-resistant variants of COVID-19 was less than it is now.

 

Meanwhile, the deep cuts to capital expenditures made by oil companies during the past few years when oil prices dropped to levels that the companies couldn’t profit from suggest, if not too little oil available for the infrastructure upgrades that Biden and other politicians are promoting, at least a rise in the price of oil due to increased demand meeting reduced supply from the reduction in capital spending that would have funded the new sources of oil that infrastructure upgrades and additions require. But oil prices can only rise so high before they drive an economic downturn similar to 2008. I don’t expect us to be able to afford to maintain all of our current infrastructure under these conditions, much less upgrade it or add new infrastructure. Sure, some projects will get funded by political influence and subsidy dumping. But most of us will do more of what we are already doing: paying more money than we already are for services that are no better than, and likely worse then, what we already have, or being forced to drop services in favor of less resource-intensive ways of providing for ourselves.

 

And that’s why I keep this blog. Why are so many people gardening now? Among other things, it feeds us for less money and less infrastructure than any other way I know of. Why do people need to know about how to stay comfortable in a cooler residence in winter and a warmer residence in summer? Because it’ll reduce the drain on your wallet as utility prices rise to reflect deteriorating infrastructure and energy price spikes. At some point I plan to pick up the human-powered tools theme that I began some years back, because human-powered tools can do most of what fossil-fuel powered tools do without the infrastructure that fossil fuels require. I will probably touch on other aspects of home economics as time goes by, especially if the suspicions I’ve detailed above eventuate.

 

Next time I’ll write about this year’s garden project. Till then, I wish you all a good April!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

When the lights went out in Texas

 

It got cold here in February. Sometime during the day or evening of the 5th the temperature dropped below 32F. It didn’t reach 32F again until late afternoon on the 19th. In between, St. Louis set new record low maximum temperatures of 8F on the 14th and 4F on the 15th. Belying the too-cold-to-snow theory, on the 15th, the coldest day of the 2020-2021 winter season with that record low maximum temperature of 4F, we also received the season’s largest snowfall event of 5.7 inches.

 

Outside of St. Louis, none of this mattered. Instead, our attention fell on the much more serious problems that the same storm brought to Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and parts of the Deep South. The storm demonstrated how weather events have disproportionate effects on areas where they rarely occur.

 

St. Louisans experience temperatures around 0F every winter and around 100F every summer; building codes reflect this reality, as does the prevalence of air-conditioning for summer heat waves. I think fewer people have backup non-electric means of heating as have air-conditioning, but some people have wood stoves and wood-burning fireplaces, and natural gas heating and cooking are fairly common. Natural gas fireplaces are becoming more common as well. If Mike and I lose electric service in winter, we’ll still have hot water because we have a gas water heater, and we have a wood stove for heating and some cooking. (We used the wood stove to provide more heat than we wanted to pay for during the worst of the cold wave, which also served as one of our contributions to our electric utility’s request to conserve electricity during that time.) Beyond that, we have stored rainwater and a water filter to provide clean water and a supply of canned and dry foods along with a manual can opener. This meant we didn’t need to leave the house until the roads were cleared of snow and ice and the temperature wasn’t as cold.

 

South of us, on the other hand, storms of this magnitude rarely occur. Texas last experienced a cold wave like this in 2011 and before that in 1989. Most Texans don’t have enough practice with severe cold to have developed the home infrastructure to manage it. Wood stoves don’t make sense in a climate where the lowest average high is 56F (that’s for Dallas/Fort Worth). Even the cheaper forms of non-electric heating like a kerosene heater would get little enough use that few people probably have them. While many people have non-electric barbeque equipment, the extreme cold, snow, and ice made it impractical to use them for heating water or cooking. And heating water implies that you have water; the lack of electricity, whether at home or in water utilities, led to a lack of water when the pipes froze and broke and the water pumps shut off.

 

When heat waves strike locations which normally experience relatively cool summers, the same lack of practice and home infrastructure results in higher death rates than for places farther south where residents contend with heat waves every summer. In the US, a good example is the difference in deaths between Chicago and St. Louis in the heat wave of 1980. Something like 100 people died of the heat in the St. Louis region. In Chicago, on the other hand, at least 700 people died. The biggest single factor accounting for the difference was the higher percentage of air-conditioned residences in St. Louis as opposed to Chicago. Most Chicagoans didn’t have air conditioning because they so rarely needed it, while most St. Louisans did. A similar lack of air conditioning due to usually mild summers led to an estimated 30,000-50,000 people dying of heat-related causes during the European heat wave of August 2003.

 

Infrastructure deficiencies cause problems on larger scales than just that of a single residence. The cold wave of February amply demonstrated how Texas’ electricity and water infrastructure failed in the face of the extreme cold conditions.

 

In the immediate aftermath, the usual fingers pointed at the usual targets. Fossil fuel advocates pointed to wind turbines covered in ice that had to be shut down. Renewable energy advocates countered with fossil fuel plants that were forced offline because equipment essential to operating the plants froze. Advocates for public utilities and regulation noted that under Texas’ privatization and deregulation of electrical generation and distribution, Texas’ electric utilities and electrical consumers alike have no incentive to take on the high cost of, for instance, properly insulating electrical plants and their equipment so that the plants can continue to supply electricity during a cold wave of this magnitude. Since the vast majority of Texas had declared energy independence from the rest of the US, almost all of the Texas electrical grid stands alone. When the Texas grid couldn’t supply the amount of electricity needed to match demand, it could not open a connection to either of the other two large-scale grids in the US to mitigate the severity of the situation. Not that those grids had a lot of spare capacity at the time, since the cold wave was as severe and expansive as it was; their own customers were already taxing the grid with their own demands.

 

It wasn’t till about a week after the worst of the event, as I was mulling over what I wanted to say in this post, that I fully understood the implications of the event. With considerable interest I read the stories about what happened when it became apparent that the grid’s carefully balanced condition was failing as plant after plant dropped offline while demand continued to increase. One of the people on the scene was quoted as saying that the entire Texas stand-alone grid was “seconds to minutes” away from catastrophic failure. He and others realized that the only solution was to drop off huge chunks of demand in order to buy time to stabilize the system to the remaining demand and then to slowly add back other chunks of demand as plants could be made operational again. It’s similar to how your local electrical utility manages outages from a severe storm: if you’re lucky, the circuit you’re on is added back quickly; otherwise you have to wait until the utility can safely add the demand from your circuit into its distribution system.

 

The “catastrophic failure” potential he described, however, would have been far more severe than anything the vast majority of us have ever experienced. The closest equivalent would be the January 1998 ice storm in Maine and in Quebec in Canada. Some communities had no electricity for two weeks or longer. This being Maine and Canada, most people had non-electric means to withstand winter conditions, so they managed well enough. The limited extent of the storm meant that electric utilities could respond relatively quickly and effectively. Even so, it would have been a long two weeks without electricity for those who went through it.

 

In the case of Texas in mid-February, the person interviewed described the potential failure as being very wide-ranging. Electrical equipment relied on by most of the people in Texas would have failed past the point of quick and easy repair, if it could be repaired at all, according to what I understood. Texas has the second highest population of all states in the US, estimated at 29 million in 2019. Of its major cities, only El Paso, population roughly 700,000, is not on the Texas stand-alone grid; its electrical system is part of the western grid. A very small area of extreme eastern Texas belongs to the eastern grid, but there are no major cities in this area. Had the electrical grid completely failed, as it was within seconds to minutes of doing, something like 27 to 28 million people would have lost electrical service for at least days, if not weeks to months. Electric utilities, whether public or private, don’t keep a lot of skilled grid repair people on staff, instead relying on compacts that send those employees to other cities and states in the event of widespread outages that the local utility cannot handle on its own. I suspect that an effort to repair a catastrophic failure of Texas’ grid would have absorbed most of the skilled electric utility workers in the entire US, leaving the rest of the country at risk from the smaller-scale severe weather events that the US is prone to.

 

I don’t think that all of those 27 to 28 million people would have been willing to remain in their residences without food or water for very long. Besides being the second most populous state, Texas is also the second largest state in area. The logistics of getting relief to everyone in the state who would have needed it is staggering to contemplate. Failing that, it’s reasonable to suppose that most Texans with a car and enough gasoline to make it to a place with electrical service would have set out for said place. Can you say “refugee?”

 

I bring this up because it’s a particular case of a larger problem with infrastructure in the US. Those who rate the quality of the US infrastructure – the transportation, electrical, fossil fuel, water, and other hardscape systems that we all depend on to supply our daily needs – rate it quite poorly. Most of our infrastructure needs infusions of cash, material, and labor to bring it up to a satisfactory level. However, the will to provide those things seems to be lacking. We’d like to have an infrastructure in good repair, but we’re unwilling to pay to repair the infrastructure we already have. So we have a patchy network of shiny new infrastructure in places currently being built up, while the already-existing infrastructure slowly, and sometimes not so slowly, decays. What’s shiny and new now will need repair later on as it wears out, but we don’t even keep up what we already have.

 

Can we in fact keep all of our current infrastructure in good repair, much less the new infrastructure we insist on adding? You’ll have to wait for next month’s blog post for my thoughts on that. It’ll probably be the post after that before I return to gardening. In the meantime, I’ll be starting seeds this week and watching for the first daffodil blooms. Happy March to all of you!