fire season

The 2019 spring fire season has been off to a slow start. Some years, the stars just don’t align… by stars I mean the proper elements of humidity, sun, wind, and available staff and volunteers.

(To see previous posts on fire, click in the search field on the right-hand side of the page and type “fire”).

However, we did get two burn days last week, and we covered Moontree, a cattail marsh, and a fen that had been used as a pasture.

First, Moontree:

I like to say that prescribed fire is 95% boredom and preparation followed by and 5% excitement (and it’s only exciting when I know the hard prep work has paid off as planned). Some new volunteers anxious to see a spectacle are a little underwhelmed, once they realize what it actually entails. The photos I’m posting don’t quite capture it either… the planning, phone calls, checking weather, fixing gear, raking fire lanes, etc. After reading this ecologist’s musings on portraying prescribed fire to the public, I’m trying to be careful to not create misunderstanding.

We had a neighbor come help us burn. We’ve been talking about working together on habitat projects across our property boundaries. This is something we are really excited about as we look at the long-term prospects of building a stewardship culture in the area. Getting together for meals, for burns, and just to talk about the latest phenological happenings is important to coalition building. Thanks Ryan!

And, of course, Sr. Mary was out working too!

We like diversity of habitats, diversity of species, and diversity of disturbance patterns. With that in mind, we only burn a portion of each habitat each season, leaving an unburned section adjacent. Fire does have the potential to kill overwintering insect eggs, and the odd rodent or rabbit. Keeping our management activities diverse helps ensure that populations are sustained from year to year.

You can see in the photo below that we have a burned section next to an unburned one:

Not the best photo, but I heard some Sandhill Cranes flying over so I crouched low and got a photo of both fire and cranes with my phone:

Next over to the cattails. I’m hoping to get the drone up soon to get some aerial photos to see exactly what sections caught fire. Cattails are trickier to light than one might think… the clumps of course leaves can be far enough apart to prevent fire from spreading. Fortunately, the wind was just right to achieve our objectives here. We had just come off some very cold weather, so I was able to stand on solid ice (over only 12-18″ of water) to get this photo:

Here’s a shot of our great team:

The fen was a unit that I had been waiting to do. But we needed to learn how to work together and communicate as a burn team first. Then came the grant for prescribed fire equipment. A couple years of experience, then we were ready!

The picture below shows a little bit of the complex hydrology that makes this place special. It does hold some rainwater, but a lot of this is bubbling up from underground. These areas are a priority for conservation of unique plants, as well as maintaining a uncontaminated drinking water supply.

Here’s a video showing the breadth of this burn unit. This was after most of the more careful and tedious work was done around the roadsides, which we do slowly to minimize the smoke that goes over the road.

Some things are unveiled with a fire. You can see here the hummocks from the Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta). These micromounds 12-18″ in height are part of the structural diversity we like to see in the landscape. At the scale of an insect or a small mammal, it’s significant! You can read more about this sedge here.

Here’s one final image I stumbled upon one morning about a week after the Moontree fire. It’s the base of a perennial grass. I walked by in the exact moment that the sun was rising and burning off the hoarfront from this and other features on the landscape

It seemed to be an apt image of springtime in the Midwest. Here, and not here. Glorious rays of warm sun followed by another snow shower.

The word that came to mind was liminal.

Dark-Hard-Tense-Tight-Cold // \\ Warm-Loose-Fluid-Soft-Light

We are there in the middle.

Hoarfrost disintegrating off last year’s Bee Balm flower heads

the Marshall County flood, one year later

Well, it’s been one year since the Big Flood of 2018. We have seen a lot of retrospectives in the news and social media.

The talk I had prepared in February 2018 on 150 years of ecological change in Marshall County was, ironically, cancelled because of widespread flooding. The Yellow River, which is the main aquatic artery of Marshall County, crested at 17.65 on 2/22/18. This bested the record of 17.10 ft on 10/12/54. I posted some early photos and videos here. Here’s some additional video that was published later.

I followed up with a more detailed piece on hydrology and human land use, and how they combine to affect flood patterns.

I remember driving along US 30 on March 6 and being stunned and the hundreds of Sandhill Cranes lined up at the small lakes that emerged in so many farm fields. It was the slightly glimpse back at the Everglades of the North that existed for thousands of years before European agriculture.

As soon as the waters receded, I took my family exploring at River Park Square in downtown Plymouth. The flood had swept away the wooden frames holding the raised beds of the community garden, leaving the garden soil & roots. Can you see the long stripes of sand on the down-stream side of the beds? They are not from the beds themselves. I presume as the water flowed around and over the beds (away from the vantage point of the camera), the water was slowed, which made it drop sediment in neat lines. It felt like we were at a Lake Michigan beach!

The flood stimulated a massive community effort across businesses, government, non-profits, and faith communities. We know from human history that it is often times of larger community crises that we suddenly rise and form new links and alliances, to reach out towards our neighbors in ways that we just don’t normally do on a day-to-day basis.

After the immediate clean up came the hard slog of recovery. Which homes and businesses could be repaired? By whom? With what resources? Fund-raising efforts were made. Benefit concerts were planned. Work teams were organized (The Center at Donaldson hosted at least a few). FEMA was consulted.

I can’t say that I was involved in the recovery efforts, but from talking with those involved, it was a lot of work. Over 200 families were affected. The situation was compounded for those in poverty, already on a financial edge, as well as undocumented immigrants who needed relief but were hesitant to work with government agencies.

I’m grateful to the many government workers, volunteers, and first responders that had to react to this crisis. I’m not so good at that, other than filling a few sandbags until my weak back starts complaining. As an ecologist, I’ve been trying to think about the longer-term questions of inhabiting our little space in the Yellow River watershed… what works, what doesn’t, and how we can build resilient social-ecological communities.

As old and worn as this line gets, I’m never going to tire of saying it… our children will inherit the world crafted by our decisions. Our moral responsibility is to consider what inter-generational justice looks like in our common home. (Photo from Feb 19)

First, it starts with understanding. We can educate ourselves about the Headwaters Yellow River Watershed, the land that drains to Plymouth and determines flood patterns in the city. A watershed management plan was recently conducted and is a great starting point.

We know at a societal level, we are generally underestimating flood risk. “It won’t happen to me” is just human. We build homes in floodplains, along hurricane-battered coasts with rising seas, and in deserts starved for fresh water. Our brains aren’t good at calculating low-probability, high-impact events. (Please don’t do an audit of my house for working smoke detectors, kitchen-rated fire extinguishers, radon, earthquake insurance, etc!!). We need to stay vigilant and visualize the true cost of being caught unprepared.

I stumbled upon the 2014 Flood Inundation Maps for the Yellow River, written by the U.S. Geological Survey (here’s a shout out to all those PhDs, technicians, and office assistants slogging away in government cubicles doing incredibly important and often overlooked work in the interest of the common good). They modeled the impacts of a “100-year flood” on the City of Plymouth. This flood would discharge 3,800 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) and be around 15.5 ft flood stage. The actual flood in 2018 was around 17.6 ft flood stage and around 5,800 cfs of water.

That’s why I cringed when I saw editorials in the press writing about a “64-year-flood” (It had been 64 years since the flood of 1954). This misunderstanding is understandable for the general public, but leaders should really try to communicate the risks accurately.

As was explained in the South Bend Tribune, we had experienced something more like a “500 year flood,” which means – according to our best scientific understanding of current conditions – there is a 1-in-500 chance of a flood of that magnitude each year. A “64-year flood” has a 1-in-64 chance of occurring each year. But nature doesn’t space out these events evenly… the dice are rolled each season, and we need to plan accordingly.

Anyway, here’s a great explainer from the USGS, done clearer than I.

Flood intervals are partly a function of climate, and climate change is throwing a wrench in our calculations. That is, we have to prepare our societies and infrastructure for the climate of the rest of the 21st century, not the 20th.

Purdue University is slowly releasing portions of a Climate Change Impacts Assessment. In the Climate chapter, scientists write:

Extreme rainfall events, defined as having a daily rainfall total in the top 1 percent of all events, have increased over the last century and are expected to continue to do so. Heavy downpours contribute to soil erosion and nutrient runoff, which affects both water quality and crop productivity. These events can also overwhelm wastewater systems and create challenges for flood-control infrastructure… In Indiana, climate change will mostly affect extreme temperatures, precipitation extremes that affect stormwater, and annual peak flows that determine river flooding.

In other words, gird your loins for more of where that came from! We are seeing more precipitation as intense rainfall events, instead of spread out over several showers. This increases flood risk.

Second, what is our response? Knowing all this, what have we done with our year’s time as a municipality and as a county? What actually can be reasonably expected, and what is simply out of our control?

On the proactive side, River Park Square in Plymouth originated after the purchase and demolition of several homes and businesses in the flood plain. Public green space is a great use of a floodplain in an urban context. The venue is used for everything from a farm market to concerts and festivals. It’s a highlight of our town.

However, I also heard from a friend that there were several structures within the floodplain that were damaged by a flood in 2008 and were rehabbed by volunteers. They flooded again in 2018. Tens of thousands of dollars were again poured into them again last year.

Some 137 homes were damaged in Plymouth. Most of these were repaired (and let me say that I’m certainly not in a position to tell someone what to do with their home). Some were not repaired, and the city is applying for FEMA grant money to demolish the homes and prevent future construction. Building resilient communities means continually adapting to our ecological context.

To my knowledge, neither the city or the county have changed any policies or procedures in response to the flooding. Cities are often at the mercy of land use decisions made upstream, outside of municipal control. Possible infrastructure upgrades can become cost prohibitive as they try to prepare for truly rare natural disasters.

However, there are best management practices we could employ further up the watershed, in relation to ditch and drainage maintenance, farming practices, and water control structures. See this article about a rural Nebraska who coordinated all of these to prevent millions of dollars in damage during a recent flood.

And yet… I watched a property exchange hands recently, one adjacent to our first rented home in Plymouth. I remember hearing the chorus of frogs singing through our open windows. I watched big bucks creep along the fence rows. Wood frogs and turtles showing up mysteriously at my back door. The new buyers promptly bulldozed the grove of willows, drained the wetland, tore apart the fence row filled with massive cherry trees cloaked in white blooms, plowed under the access lane of remnant prairie grass that was hanging on.

All destroyed in the name of corn. And all exacerbating the effects of floods on our neighbors downstream, filling their homes with sediment, their drywall with mold.

Ultimately, it is up to the people to work together on community preparedness, to elect officials who will use the best available science to plan for the future, and to respect the Earth’s ecological communities. Are we up to the task?

Lastly, I want to link again to Steve Glass’ beautiful and clear-eyed meditation on the importance of water.

I want to also point towards a recent headline, “Lake Erie just won the same legal rights as people.” At one time, this may have sounded like some wild-haired hippy dream, at least to those of us who have been indoctrinated with extractive and mechanistic thinking, a thinking is a very peculiar and recent phenomenon for our species.

But perhaps with all the nitrates, PFAS, water rationing, irrigated lawns, contaminated fish, ocean trash, lead, mercury, and floods, we might admit that we have neglected our charge. That we’ve demystified the sacred source that composes 60% of our liquid being, and that we again need to treat water, and ourselves, with more than a little respect.

A Kingfisher watches the sunset over a skin of December ice on Lake Galbraith, Marshall County (2018).

a harvest anthem

It’s a winter wild game harvest, where neighbors gather round
To savor the earth’s bounty, from the water, woods, and ground

With crock pots, bags, and bottles, the dinner pile increases
Spices, jerky, drink, and salad… all for what? Our thesis:

To build a land-community, of science and of art
From the toddling babe, to wise gray sage, each one a vital part

With wild turkey and noodles, venison soup, and craft beverage cold
We take each new idea, and weave it with the old

What’s with all these geese? Did you hear about the bobcat?!
Each species on the move this year, I wonder where that fox at

From burrow, tip-out, and fence-row, to Mt. Baldy’s humble height
A land community dances on, as day folds into night

Whether ignorant or conscious, winter-spring-summer-fall,
We’re dancing to Earth’s anthem, may we be true Stewards, all

another news round up (energy & climate change edition)

We Have 12 Years to Limit Climate Change Catastrophe, warns U.N.

This generated a lot of press when it dropped… but maybe people feel like the messaging is off. The intent is to generate urgency, which is the first step in making change, but with a thorny problem like climate change, any and all efforts can be valuable. The point is haste, and scale. As a follow up…

Don’t Despair: The Climate Fight is Only Over If You Think It Is

Some commentary on the first link.

What’s Really Warming the World?

Phenomenal visualizations from Bloomberg on the data around the source of temperature variability associated with climate change. They cover volcanic activity, deforestation, fossil fuel emissions, change in solar irradiation, etc.

U.S. Coal Plant Retirements Near All-Time High

The trend just doesn’t seem to be letting up. (See this press release from September from our own NIPSCO).

NIPSCO plans partnership with 3 wind farms in Indiana

A Rare Find: Purdue professor extracts valuable rare earth elements from coal ash 

This from the recently-launched Indiana Environmental Reporter. Looks at the cutting edge of research… now, if they can find a way to scale and commercialize the process.

Greenhouse Gases Emissions Accelerate Like ‘A Speeding Freight Train’ in 2018

Time to redouble our efforts.

The case for “conditional optimism” on climate change: limiting the damage requires rapid, radical change – but such changes have happened before

Adds some nuance to the conversation. A topic that includes science, but as we discuss around these parts, is certainly much larger than the scientific enterprise.

Indiana NAACP leaders say coal plant timeline is unacceptable for residents

This starts to get towards the idea of Integral Ecology, when issues of justice intersect with how we use and interact with our world.

a wee cold spell

Here’s a live picture of me checking the temperature and wind chill readings:

Adam R. Egret, Marco Island, FL

Currently we are sitting at -18 deg F and 18 mph winds, which makes -45 deg F wind chill.

So, how do we all cope, ecologically?

A similar cold snap happened when I was wrapping up grad school, in January 2014. I remember a lot of snow, -40 deg F wind chill, and ice forming on the inside of our leaky windows.

My dear wife attempts to find the sidewalk and our car underneath the piles of snow. There wasn’t no going nowhere.

I also remember the birds. We put out some sunflower seeds on top of the snow, feeling pretty sorry for the buggers. The dark-eyed juncos came quickly, puffing up their feathers for extra insulation, they kept right on doing their junco thing.

A dark-eyed junco, taking -40 deg F windchills in stride (Upland, IN, January 2014)

Juncos are a sure sign of a Midwestern winter. They nest in Canada but winter throughout the continental U.S.

I remember reading that they maintain an internal body temperature of 104 deg F. I stared through the window pane in wonder… how does something that weighs as much as four quarters maintain a 140+ degree temperature difference with its environment?

Surviving severe winters, of course, biologically rewards those individual juncos who are most fit for their environment. These survival genes are passed on to the next clutch of eggs. But it’s still amazing nonetheless.

How about insects?

Some folks are hopeful that this cold snap will set back the Emerald Ash Borer, an Asian pest that has almost completely decimated Ash trees throughout the Midwest (and is still spreading).

But it’s likely that any effects on the population will be short-term, only delaying the inevitable. This cold snap will kill those individuals who are the least cold-hearty, and those most fit to an extreme winter will live to reproduce.

Remember our mosquito friends? I wrote a post last year about finding a mosquito on January 8th in our north woodland, after 21 consecutive days below freezing, including one night down to -20 deg F.

Don’t plan on getting rid of those guys (& gals) anytime soon. (Although, scientists are on the verge of finding a way to potentially wipe out malaria-carrying mosquitoes altogether, which presents some pretty thorny ethical issues).

I’m still impressed by you, girl.

What about us humans? Before weather forecasts, radios, and the like, sudden winter storms could turn into a severe threat.

There was the Schoolhouse Blizzard of January 1888, a series of very unusual events that combined to catch many people outside in the Great Plains just as temperatures plummeted rapidly. More than 200 died and more lost fingers, hands, and feet. Another blizzard that March killed more than 400 people along the eastern seaboard of the U.S.

Scientists have greatly improved weather forecasts through the years. Millions of people are now routinely evacuated safely out of the path of hurricanes. This cold snap was predicted several days ago, giving thousands of communities ample time to prepare. Even within my brief lifetime, the 3-day forecasts are now as accurate as day-ahead forecasts used to be. As a father, I’m extremely grateful to the scientists, first responders, and governmental institutions that keep it all running.

But careful with the hubris, frail human. Hurricanes have regularly killed hundreds or thousands in the U.S. Two of the deadliest six in our history came recently (Katrina in 2005, Maria in 2017), the moralities being a function of more social failure than meteorology.

A couple weeks ago, I asked if solar panels work in the winter. Yes, indeed. I looked up the spec sheet for the panels and the inverters, and their listed operating temperature goes down to -40 deg C. We are currently at -28 deg C (-18 deg F) and they are doing fine.

Wastewater array power production for 1/30/19

In fact, it looks like we hit a new all-time high for power production last Friday (Jan. 25) at 67,771 W. It was about +10 deg F that day. Cold is good!

*UPDATE/ASIDE: there have been reports of loud BOOMS! across the Midwest, and even Plymouth… frost quakes!*

Lastly, one video from this morning, just for fun. A science experiment for the extreme cold. Instead of popping, soap bubbles will first freeze and shatter, falling to the ground in pieces of thin ice.

Later today I’m going to try to hammer a nail through a board with a frozen banana!


Yes, birds. Lots of birds.

Bird #1: the Limpkin, “uncommon, local, and inconspicous” in southern swamps and marshes, with a piercing, eerie cry that humans sometimes confuse for a damsel in distress. We were blessed to drive right up alongside a whole family of them. (Everglades National Park)

I finally listened to my wife. We escaped the cold, gray grip of Midwestern winter to join the family in the neotropics. My girls also got some quality time with both sets of grandparents.

Of course, I tried to pack in as much outdoor adventure as possible without neglecting some true rest.

I’ll forego the soliloquy on the Everglades – it’s endlessly fascinating – but suffice it to say you should read The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.

While you go get the book, here’s another bird photo:

Bird #2: the industrious Palm Warbler in it’s understated non-breeding plumage (the yellow rump being the identifier). They nest in Canadian bogs and spend winters along southern U.S. coasts, picking crumbs from picnic areas (like this one), or foraging in open areas like coastal grasslands (where I first saw them).

The federal government was shut down, but Everglades National Park remained open and we booked a 15-mile tram ride with a private company, who fortunately were still able to earn their daily bread.

Back to birds. I keep a “life list” of birds that I’ve seen. (Yes, of course there is an Excel sheet going). South Florida stays warm enough for hundreds of continental species to overwinter there, so I was able to add to my list without too much effort. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be working!

New birds to me included 13 in all: boat-tailed grackle, black-and-white warbler, blue-headed vireo, painted bunting, glossy ibis, limpkin, red-shouldered hawk, purple gallinule, black-crowned night heron, semi-palmated plover, fish crow, white-eyed vireo, and burrowing owl.

Bird #3: the ubiquitous Snowy Egret. Their beautiful plumes were all the rage in late 19th-century headwear… the feathers by weight exceeded gold in value. Activists saved this and many other species from extinction by outlawing the unregulated slaughter. At least one game warden – Guy Bradley – gave his life for these creatures, being murdered by poachers. (Tigertail Beach, Marco Island)

Birds are the perfect gateway for people interested in exploring the natural world around them. They can be colorful, noisy, conspicuous, curious, and clever. They may be solitary or in flocks of thousands. They indicate whether a habitat is present or not, what the climate is doing, how the insect populations are responding.

Bird #4: Burrowing Owl. Populations of these 9 inch predators are stable here on densely populated Marco Island, but they are declining elsewhere, and scientists are trying to figure out why.
Yes, they build burrows right in the lawns of big condo buildings, sandwiched between a road and the sidewalk. That is to say, we build condos and roads on all sides of their home. Volunteers help maintain these protective barriers.

Burrowing Owls have the good fortune of being perceived as adorable by most of the humans that moved into their habitat, so they get the red carpet treatment. People will even sign up to have artificial burrows installed in the lawns of their million-dollar houses in hopes they will move in. See this news piece for a good overview.

Can you spot the yellow leg band in the first photo? Unique combinations of the color and position of bird bands allows researchers to keep tabs on who is whoo-whoo.

Just for fun, I sent a photo with time/location/observations to the research team and got a quick response:

Hi Adam, Thanks for the report! This is YX-GY (1094-34386). He is a male owl and was banded as an adult in June 2018, along with his mate and three chicks. He weighed a healthy 129g and had a pretty long tail of 70mm. His mate was also recently observed last week at the burrow, so we’re glad to see they’re both back and hopefully ready to begin nesting soon. Thanks and happy birding!

Some other birds are – unfortunately for them – perceived as repulsive by a lot of humans. As a result they are scowled and shot at, even though the services they provide cycle nutrients and prevent epidemics of diseases. Poor crows and vultures…

Birds #5 and 6: Pictured are a black vulture (perched) and a turkey vulture (soaring), two species that clean up dead animals and redistribute important nutrients back across the ecosystem. And what a gorgeous observation tower! (Everglades National Park)
The Black Vulture. “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat roadkill and protect humans from an epidemic of contagious disease.” (Fakahatchee Strand Preserve)

There were also a few familiar and friends, like the Gray Catbird, found in almost any Midwestern thicket during the summer. Birds, of course, don’t care what we call “natural” vs. “man-made”. They make use of it all.

Bird #7: Gray Catbird, taking a quick sip from a bubbler.

Others are much flashier. It was a treat to get a fleeting glimpse (and only a poor photo) of the Purple Gallinule.

Bird #8: The Purple Gallinule, “Jewel of the Everglades.” Catch me if you can! (Everglades National Park)

Some birds are just big and unique, and that’s enough for me. Wood Storks fit the bill. I was able to catch a few different individuals at different angles. Get ready for the Stork-fest…

Bird #9: The Wood Stork, standing 3-4 ft tall and boasting a 5-ft wingspan, soars without a care. Or so it seems. (Robinson Preserve, Bradenton, FL)
An immature Wood Stork mingles with (or just tolerates) a Snowy Egret in Everglades NP. Not done with the stork photos yet.
Sideview of a Wood Stork, painfully close to being in focus. Sigh… let’s try again…
A Wood Stork lifts off and pumps for a little altitude.

A lot of folks describe certain forests like a “cathedral.” We have woods at The Center where people get that feeling.

The Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is one such site (link). It is home to the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America, as well as a huge Wood Stork rookery. Other-worldly, eerie, glorious (at least outside of mosquito season). Creation’s beauty on full display. Here we find our last few birds (I promise).

Bird #10: A Great Egret patiently waits for a meal.
Bird #11: A immature White Ibis perched above the swamp waters.
A few dozen White Ibis congregating. Their feathers are white with black wing tips upon maturing, while their bill, face, and legs stay pink.
Bird #12: A Little Blue Heron – half as tall as our familiar Great Blue Heron – takes advantage of it’s diminutive size by walking on water. Well, on the floating Water Lettuce anyway. These birds have declined by 55% since 1966, due to habitat loss and human-caused changes in local water dynamics .

The Audubon Society is to be commended for defending this natural treasure and interpreting it for the public.

That’s more than enough birds for one post. But you don’t get birds without habitat. Some of these cypress trees were already growing here when Ponce de León came ashore 500 years ago. This first tree is named “Leopold” after one of America’s most esteemed ecologists, Aldo Leopold. I thought the name was a fitting tribute for someone who truly took the long view.

This tree predates the United States by a few centuries.

“The Leopold tree is 500-plus years old, one of the forest’s oldest, and at 98 feet tall, one of its tallest. The toll wrought by numerous hurricanes has cost the tree its top and most of its branches, leaving a massive main trunk that, chest high, is 22 feet around. Its fallen branches combine with the litter of cypress needles, cones, leaves from other trees, and the roots of nearby plant, contributing biomass to the spongy organic peat of the forest floor. Peat acts like a sponge to wick moisture up to the cypress roots year-round. The moisture in turn keeps the forest cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.” (source)

This giant Bald Cypress has dropped it’s green needles (leaves) for the winter, but its branches are still loaded with other aerial plant species called epiphytes, which live right on its surface.

Epiphytes above, fungal networks below, nutrients cycling in and out, and birds, panthers, and otters streaming under, around, and over.

A forest elder embodying connectivity, community, and generativity.

what is “smart” electric car charging?

There’s a steep learning curve on electric cars, because our brains have been molded for generations to think of mobility with gasoline engines. But once you switch your mode of thinking, it’s not too hard.

“How long does it take to charge?”

The answer is always… it depends. You don’t regularly drive your electric car around until it’s “empty” then try to hurry through a fueling station, like we’re all trained to do.

Another answer is a question: “How long does it take to charge your cell phone?”

How many watts does this cord pull? I have no clue. It just works.

I don’t know the charging rate of my phone, because I just charge it overnight and it’s full in the morning. Same with cars. Each garage with an outlet has a mini “gas station” that slowly fills the “tank” up while we sleep.

Or maybe it’s an army of helpful little electric gnomes. I haven’t checked.

I remember getting in my car one morning and seeing that it had gained 20 miles of range over night. What? Gained? That doesn’t make any sense! I’ve been driving for almost 20 years… you just go until you’re almost out then you have to go to the gas station. Cars don’t magically add range while you sleep! But my mind finally flipped, and I realized I can skip the gas station routine altogether if I spend 5 seconds plugging it in every day.

The reality is that if you have a garage with an outlet, you’ll probably never need a public charger unless it’s a couple counties or more from your home. That’s why the comparisons with gas stations don’t make much sense.

Anyway, the “real” answer is that there are various levels/speed of charging… and that there are two types of cars with plugs (full electric and gas/electric hybrids)… I already gave my too looooong explainer here, after my 1st year of driving.

But let me get to the main point.

The main point.

In researching for our first grant-funded public charging station (thanks Marshall Co Community Foundation!), we determined the most affordable option was to use existing underground conduit that ran to the electrical panel. Ironically, it was first laid to run a pump used to clean a leaky underground gasoline storage tank. One more reason to go electric!

The conduit diameter predetermined that maximum size wire we could safely pull through, 6 gauge. This size uses a 60 amp breaker. The rule for continuous loads is 80% of the breaker size, so we can only run 48 amps continuously through this line.

The JuiceBox Pro 40 by eMotorwerks had just what we needed. They are WiFi-connected, which allows me to control the units from an online dashboard, view charging history, set maximum amperage and charging times, etc. Now I can also download data and use it for educational purposes

But the best feature was pairing the two 40 amp units on a single line. 40+40 = 80, which exceeds the 48 amp maximum for the wire. I set a rule such that each unit could individually go up to 40 amps, but they could never exceed a combined 48 amps if two cars were plugged in at the same time (they’d drop to 24+24, or 15+33, etc). This eliminated the need to run an additional wire/trench, while maximizing charging speed at the stations.

Getting busy.

It’s not often we have two cars charging at the exact same time, but I noticed that there were on Dec. 21.

The image below is the charging profile of the Honda Clarity. The time is on the X-axis, and the energy and power are on the Y-axis. Focus on the orange line, which is power (the charging speed).

It is plugged in at 8:03 AM and ramps up to it’s maximum charging speed of 6 kW (29 amps).

At 9:10 AM, a Ford C-Max is plugged in. The C-Max is an older model and can’t draw as many amps as the new Clarity. It ramps up and peaks at 14 amps. Remember… we have a 48 amp maximum. Ok, technically I had set the limit at 40 amp maximum because I was nervous (without reason)! So 40 – 14 = 26 amps remaining available for the Honda. Sure enough, if you look at the first green arrow, the charging rate drops a bit, from 6 kW (29 amps) to 5 kW (26 amps).

It continues like this until 9:31 AM. At this point, the Honda is almost full. For reasons I’m not smart enough to explain (but you could Google), batteries have to “top off” their cells with decreasing speed. At the 2nd green arrow above, you can see the charging rate slowly drop over the last 15 minutes, then stop completely.

Meanwhile, the C-Max keeps humming along. The image below is the 2nd charger, used by the Ford C-Max. It charges at it’s maximum 3 kW (14 amps) until it is unplugged at 9:47 AM.

Ok, now that you see how these things can work… imagine the possibilities. Namely, we can change the vehicles’ charging rates and times based on our goals.

The price of electricity on the grid can change dramatically throughout the day (and you can watch it in real time here). We can program cars to charge so as to minimize cost. BMW already ran a pilot study. In fact, NIPSCO is planning to replace some of it’s coal capacity with “demand side management,” in which customers are paid to adjust their electrical demand.

There is also software available that watches the fuel composition of the grid and prioritizes charging when there are high amounts of renewable energy being produced (software is not yet available in Indiana).

Taken in one sitting, this can all sounds pretty overwhelming. But it’s an exciting time to watch the energy transition and figure out how to do it efficiently, affordably, and quickly.

do solar panels work in the winter?

Short answer: yes, during daylight hours of course!

Sunrise to sunset, faithfully.

So here’s the long answer…

Our solar arrays come with a internet-connected software that allows us to see minute-by-minute production, down to each individual panel. Yes, it’s a dream for a data-glutton like myself, especially on these cold, rainy days (yuck!).

But it quickly gets confusing. When I talk solar, most people ask me 1) “are you going off the grid?” and 2) “where’s the batteries?!” Neither of which we are currently interested in. But both have a lot to do with two important terms: energy & power.

Energy is the capacity to do work (exerting a force over a distance). Power is the instantaneous rate of producing or consuming energy.

A microwave will pull around 1 kilowatt (kW) of power. If you leave it on for an hour (which I don’t recommend), it will consume 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy. Ditto if you run two microwaves for half the time… it’s still 1 kilowatt-hour, and the utility will bill you $0.15.

When you think of your home, the power (electricity) is ultimately limited by the size of the transformer feeding your home. For homeowners, the utility charges for the energy you consume… that is, power over the course of time (a month).

Think of water in a bathtub as an analogy. Whether you fill it quickly or slowly (power), it still takes the same volume of water (energy) to get it full.

Nature stores potential energy (ability to do work) in it’s carbon bonds, powered via the slow process of photosynthesis.

So… solar panels are rated by their maximum power output. We installed 295-watt Solarworld panels. They are engineered to max out at 295-watts (power) here in Indiana just as they would in Texas. But over the course of Texas’ longer and sunnier days (sigh…), they will produce more energy down South.

Ok, did I over-explain that? Good. (No? Read more, or watch a video).

Just to complicate things further, our solar installation features single-axis tilting to maximum both power & energy (I posted the video in August). Our arrays always face south (azimuth of 180 degree), but we tilt them four times a year, between 12 degrees in summer and 45 degrees in winter.

Like this (ignore their angle values):

So… do they produce in the winter?

Yes, solar panels are actually more efficient at cooler temperatures.

So when it comes to maximum power, there are some great cool and sunny winter days.

This photo above is from December 30, when the temperature was just above freezing. Power peaked at 12:30 pm at 64,200 W, which was higher than at any point registered in July or August. (The record output so far was 66,825 W on October 16th).

EDIT: A new power record for our system was set on Jan 25th at 67,771 W. We also logged our best energy production day (kWh) since October, during the last day of the polar vertex.

It was sunny all day on Dec. 30, so the power profile shows a steady rise to midday, a plateau, then a slow decline as the sun set.

The total energy produced that day was 356 kWh, all between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM, a scant 9 hours. That was the most of any December day.

So even though the maximum power exceeded anything from July or August, the short days of December mean less energy is produced overall. December as a whole was about 45% that of July’s production. The average day in July produced 380 kWh. July 6th had 526 kWH produced between 6:30 AM and 8:30 PM, during the full 14 hours of daylight.

Two final notes on weather: clouds, and snow.

While energy production over the course of an entire year is very predictable, day to day variation in solar irradiation can be substantial.

Here’s a snapshot of the last day of the year (I’m writing as the sun sets). It’s December 31st, and boy you could scarcely tell the sun was up! Cold and drizzly rain all day long. The maximum power was 2,500 W, a scant 4% of the maximum from the day previous! Total energy production was a paltry 7 kWh.


Because we have net metering, and aren’t concerned about going off-grid, this doesn’t concern us in the slightest, aside from the crummy feelings many of us experience on these gloomy days!

Intermittency is a reality for grid operators managing renewable energy resources. But grid resilience is an emergent function of the whole, not merely a sum of its parts. Suffice it to say that grid dynamics can be a little counter-intuitive, and adding in new energy sources is more than doable with the tools we have available. It’s an exciting time! (Well, if you’re a nerd).

Ok, snow time. This is a photo of the 24-panel Moontree Studios array on November 27.

Below is a snapshot of the energy production of these same panels on Nov. 27-28. Each panel is labeled with its energy production in Watt-hours. Switch back and forth between the photos… Notice that snow clinging to any particular panels does reduce production for that panel.

But generally, we don’t worry much about snow. It comes during the few months where production is already lower. The racks are tilted up at 45 degrees, so that keeps it from accumulating (to a point). The panels are dark and made of glass, so it gives a chance for snow to melt and slide off. An energetic homeowner could even take a soft broom and carefully brush the snow off in a matter of a couple minutes. I know someone who does this in Mishawaka, just as they shovel snow from their small stretch of sidewalk.

Ok… all that, and we didn’t get into DC/AC conversions, inverter sizing and efficiency, and so on. More to come. So far, so good…

a savvy Sedum

Wild Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) is Indiana’s only native Sedum. Succulents like Sedum have thickened, fleshy leaves that allow it to survive dry, harsh conditions. There are about 600 species in the genus. Some were/are used as herbs by indigenous Americans. Architects often use them in green roof design for their ability to survive the extreme microclimate on a roof.

I planted this Wild Stonecrop underneath a silver maple tree after receiving a start from a plant conference.

An American Robin used a live branch to accent its nest (just a few meters from the original plant). This photo is from Dec. 7, 2018. The leaves had not wilted by then… I assume it has rooted and looks like it will over-winter as a live plant within the nest.

There are other non-native Sedums you can plant outside, but native plant species are better adapted to our ecosystem. Their complex relationships provide more ecological function. And clearly, the plants will spread, one way or another. Why mess with millions of years of success?

To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”

It’s going to be a great year.

news round-up

Very little commentary to add here… just thought I would drop some links and let the reader peek over my shoulder and see what I’ve been reading. So here’s the news round-up… ecology edition.

How America Uses Its Land

Maps, maps… Stunning maps!

The Insect Apocalypse is Here

Don’t know what to say other than… depressing. I touched on this in October. Regardless, we cannot shy away from what science reveals and what morality compels.

I’ll post a related photo here, from my garage last weekend (box cutter & 2-by-4 for scale), and see if you can guess what’s going on:

Reading the Landscape – a poem by Steve Glass, restoration ecologist

Beautiful, painful, poignant. Give this one some space.

Sparing vs Sharing: The Great Debate Over How to Protect Nature

Following the theme of the previous links… this is a big and complicated question.

Musk. Echolocation. Venom. Spread The News About Shrews!

Ok, just a little commentary on that last one… I did some reading in my favorite mammal guidebook. Shrews are more closely related to moles than either mice or voles. We have 6 species in Indiana, and 3 in Northern Indiana where we are: the Masked Shrew, the Northern Short-Tailed Shrew, and the Least Shrew. I’ve caught a few in my mousetraps in my backyard shed (not sure which species). They appear to be pretty abundant.

Did you also know… we have flying squirrels in Northern Indiana, and armadillos in Southern Indiana? Crazy.