Parched Earth: Musings on "Grass is Class"

So it's here we are at last. We all knew we’d get here… approaching 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  While this summer has not been as harsh as the last, I feel like last summer was something of a learning curb for me: being a new gardener and relatively new landowner during the crazy part of an intense Oklahoma heat wave.

I used to take the stance that if a plant a) does not feed me, and b) can’t survive in my yard without coddling, it’s not meant to be in my yard and I should get a different kind of plant. Survival of the Fittest and adaptation to the landscape and all… but last year I learned different. I watched two large shrubs and a honeysuckle bush, both of which just might be as old as me, struggle to survive. My Oklahoma native silver maple dropped its leaves very early. Patches of my Bermuda grass died off leaving me with bare sandy patches that the feral cats love to use for their personal business. I realized with horror what was happening almost too late… but I started watering my shrubs just in the nick of time. They are still not happy shrubs. They are nowhere near the hardy shrubs they used to be. One of them still hangs on to life with a tentative tendril. But they are not dead shrubs, either.

After last year, I gave in. In unusually intense weather I now water more than my food. My lawn gets periodic sprinkler treatments. My shrubs and other inedible plants get water, too. Even if they live in Oklahoma. I figure if my shrubs can live some 20-some years without much help, then they deserve a hand up, and if they need watering, I can’t expect anything else to live without it, either. I’d rather not be Queen of a sandbox next year. Droughts don’t last forever. Right?


Still. I can’t help but feel slightly guilty when I water. I water responsibly and I don’t overdo it. But I can sometimes just envision the state’s water resources shrinking, the lakes and aquifers drying up, all so I can save my honeysuckle bush and Bermuda grass until the rains return.

When I think of watering lawns, I often am reminded of a quote that came from a fantastic play my college did one year, “As Bees in Honey Drown.” The quote is “Grass is class,” and it comes with a rant about the snooty luxury of lawns. My brownish, crunchy lawn doesn’t make me feel particularly classy… but watering it sure as heck makes me think of that rant with a small degree of paranoia.

Picture from www.Travelok.com
I somehow stumbled upon a thesis paper last week where a student had done some modeling on how climate change might affect Blue River. Blue River. Guys, this is one of my favorite places in the state. Head to head, it battles the Ouachitas and Winding Stair for first place, that’s how much I love Blue River. I admit that I haven’t visited in years, but it felt so lovely and peaceful every time I have been there. Even on busy days I could tuck myself away on some little tributary, listen to the water, watch it swirl around the rocks, and feel like I’m the only person around for miles. (Insert wistful sigh.) I was delighted when I learned that the Nature Conservancy hadacquired a portion of the Blue.

But back to the thesis... which I admit to only skimming. This modeling showed that in future decades the Blue could be one of the waterways (like so many of Oklahoma’s waterways) that become seasonally dry. It’s just modeling, and I hope the predictions don’t come true, but I was dismayed and surprised. The blue is not shallow – in places it is plenty deep enough to swim in it! Right. So I added the bleak image of a dry Blue River bed to my list of water concerns – even if it is not yet realized.

The land adapts. People adapt. If I become the Queen of the sandbox, perhaps I shall develop a love for cacti and Arizona-esque landscape rocks. The hubby might dig it. Meanwhile, I have reluctantly given in to the urban urge to water my lawn. So please forgive me, and wish my shrubberies well. (If they die, will you fetch me a shrubbery?)

Of course you know these watering tips.
  • ·        Spot water if you can.
  • ·        Trickle irrigate or use a soaker hose if you can.
  • ·        Water during the morning or evening to prevent evaporation.
  • ·        It is ok to let your lawn and trees go dormant so long as the roots get enough water to survive until next year… different based on your vegetation (I think I read that Bermuda grass needs a minimum of an inch of water a week during drought to keep the roots alive?), but you can use this handy tool from the good ol' mesonet to tell you what you need to do. 


OG&E Smart Hours / Time of Use Pricing - Part 2

How do you like it?
I like it fine. To be honest, most days it does not have much of an effect on my life. I like that I get to be more involved and knowledgeable in the utility process and I feel as though I’m helping the community and myself while I’m at it. But generally, it seems normal by now, and it is not a hassle so I don’t think much about it.

Is it saving you money?
OG&E guarantees that for the first year of sign-up to the program, they would compare my flat rate cost to my Smart Hours/time of use cost for that billing period and would never charge more than what I would have paid on the flat rate. So right there, I’m promised that I will either save money or pay the same as I would have paid otherwise. For each billing cycle during the time of use season, they show the difference in what I would have paid; my bills show that I saved something in the neighborhood of $23 the first month and $29 the second month from using the new pricing system. This is a pretty decent percentage of my bill.

In addition, I feel like being on the program makes me more aware of what I’m doing, so that I likely also have some savings from overall reductions in use. These are harder to quantify since we’ve been working on the energy efficiency in our home through home improvement projects as well. Some of this reduced load is from home improvement, some of it is from increased awareness due to Smart Hours, and some of it is from my personal race to try to get my weekly myogepower summary to say “Efficient” or less. (I don’t know why I like to do this, but I feel like I win a cyber-award on weeks that I meet that goal. I have been known to hold my arms in the air and exclaim, to my husband’s confusion, “Hooray! We beat the neighbors!” Yep. I can’t explain this weird urge. Or the frown I make the next week when my neighbor theoretically beats me and I am no longer “Efficient.”)

How do you know how much you’re paying every day – does the thermostat work?
I think I would have to bury my head in a sandbox to miss all of the price signals OG&E sends. The day before, I get an email, an automated phone call, AND a message on my thermostat about the next day’s rate. I probably could opt out of some of these alerts if I tried, but to be honest, I kind of like to be banged over the head like this in case I’m just not paying attention that day. On top of all of these alerts, our Smart Hours thermostat has lights on it that indicate price changes and stay on during the duration of the ‘price event.’ And I thought these would be little LEDs or something, but let me tell you, my friends: these lights are BRIGHT. I have no choice but to notice them!

This brings me to the second part of the question; yes, the thermostat works very well. I like the lights on it. I like the price messages on it. I like the instantaneous price display on it. I was extra impressed that the representative who installed my thermostat stood there and asked about our schedules and programmed it for us… but my husband has no problem re-programming it when he wants to, so it must be pretty easy to understand. (We have had programmable thermostats in the past that were such a pain, we quit using them!) I also like how the thermostat programming is integrated into the price signals. It really does do most of the work for us in a simple and understandable way, and since we’ve had it set up the way we like it, we haven’t had to mess with it again.

So, you just don’t use electricity?
Um, no. I might be a crazy hippie compared to some people, but I’m not that much of a crazy hippie. In fact, my husband might divorce me if he couldn’t play the Xbox anymore. At the very least, I’d never see him again if he had to go over to friends’ houses to play Halo and Fallout.

But I digress. Let’s think about this question for just a second. The peak periods are only Monday-Friday, 2-7. These are the only times the rate is ever increased. Some of these weekdays we’re at work, and it is a simple matter to just wait a small period of time after we get home before we start up the oven or the TV, resting secure in our knowledge that the thermostat takes care of things while we’re gone. On weekdays when we are at home, it’s still pretty easy to run the appliances we need to run prior to 2pm, and then either switch them off and do something else for a few hours (time to fold all the laundry I just washed!) or go do errands.

You also have to remember that some days, if we are lucky, it is the low rate all day, so we can do whatever we want without paying extra. And – I have to remind my hubby of this all the time – AND – we have the option of using electricity between 2-7pm. No one is stopping us! We just have to keep in mind that we may be paying more at those times, and make the decision as to how much we *really* have a burning desire to play Halo or run the dishwasher right away. Do we really need to do that now, or would we be perfectly happy waiting until after 7? Usually we have no problem at all shifting our activities around peak times. 

Some people handle higher temperatures better than others; this is a fact. I like it warm and I usually don’t mind the house being warm, within a reasonable range. My husband on the other hand likes cooler temperatures and is less tolerant. We want us both to be comfortable, so when he’s at home during high or critical rate days, we try this technique:

If it is a high rate day and we will be home between 2-7, we kick our a/c up in the morning. We pre-chill the house so that it is a little cooler than we would normally have it under ideal conditions (I will usually do 2-4 degrees lower depending on the forecast), then we bump the a/c back down to conserve energy during peak.  At 2pm we close the drapes and try not to open the doors, just like gramma taught us. You may be surprised how long the comfort lasts, especially in a well-weatherized home (at my house – which is not uber weatherized - it usually stays in the comfort range until at least 5:00). If we start to get too warm, we turn on some fans to make up the difference, because these use less energy than an air conditioner. If and when we get too warm again we will turn the a/c back up… but even going through this whole process, chances are that we still will have used less energy than if we’d just left the a/c on. Many days the pre-chill is good enough to last until peak is over.


OG&E Smart Hours / Time of Use Pricing

One of the things I get questioned about in my personal/offline life is OG&E’s “Smart Hours” program. If you aren’t a customer of Oklahoma Gas and Electric, this is their “time of use” pricing program.  I have heard all sorts of interesting, creative theories about time of use pricing, so let me give you the low down.

Under time of use pricing, the price you pay per unit of electricity fluctuates up and down rather than remaining constant. How does this work?

First, you need a very basic understanding of the electric system. Electric companies do not use just one power plant; they have a variety of different types that run on different fuels and create differing amounts of electricity. Another key point is that they can’t store electricity; they have to make it and send it to the grid (and to you) immediately. During normal conditions, electric companies run “baseload” power plants. These types of power plants are usually the cheapest to operate and they run pretty much 24/7. As more people use more electricity at once, they turn on intermediate plants to create more electricity. These cost a little more to operate but they can turn on and off quickly to provided needed power. At the height of power needs, an electric company has to turn on their “peak” production power plants. These are the most expensive to run (and sometimes they are also the highest polluting), so they save these peak power units for last and only use them when they really need them.

The end result of this system is that the more people who use electricity at one time (say, during the heat of the day in the summertime), the more it costs to produce the electricity.  Under a normal pricing plan, average folks like us don’t notice the hourly changes in cost, but the price increases are still reflected in our overall rates. This is because the flat rate is based on a predicted average of the cost of production. You can see where this is going. If you can bring down the peak, you  bring down the flat rate over all, and theoretically you can also prevent the need to construct new power plants.

What Time of Use pricing, or here, “Smart Hours” pricing, does is allow the consumer to see and respond to the hourly changes in the cost of electric generation. It lets the consumer work together with the power company to benefit both parties by lowering the peak.

Here are some myths:

Time of Use pricing is a scheme to make me pay more for electricity.
False – The goal is *not* to make you pay the inflated rate of fifty cents a kilowatt hour (or whatever that high rate is) during peak times. The goal is to get you to use less electricity during those times when the rate is higher. Your immediate reward is a lower rate during off peak hours, so it’s entirely possible that you will pay less. In fact, for OG&E’s Smart Hours program, they are advertising that for this pilot year of the program you try it risk free – they guarantee you will not pay more under this plan than under the flat rate plan during the first year you are signed up. But even if you don’t pay less in your immediate bill, you may affect the overall rates for the next year, and drop those or prevent their rise, but unfortunately you can’t know if you succeed at this for sure.

In the case of Smart Hours, one of the motivators is that OG&E has a goal to postpone their need to build a new power plant until 2020 – construction of such a plant would actually cost ratepayers a considerable amount of money. This goal is no secret; it’s in some of their outreach materials. Partially because it takes so long to recoup the huge cost of building a new plant, OG&E is not itching to build one. If they can decrease use of electricity during the peak times, they are more likely to not need that new power plant any time soon. Smart Hours is one of their ways of working towards that goal.

Time of Use pricing is a scheme to increase the profit margins of the electric company.
False – Rate calculation is complicated and even I don’t understand all the ins and outs, but the generally correct answer is this: Electric companies are regulated by commissions whose job is to protect ratepayers/shareholders while playing it fair for the utility companies, and the profit margins for the electric utilities (at least in Oklahoma) are pre-set and calculated into the rates based on expected sales. So basically, Time of Use, Flat rate, whatever… profit margins should not be much affected. Theoretically. Either way it’s built into the rates.

Time of Use pricing is trying to get me to use less electricity. Weird…
Not really. They’re trying to encourage what is called “load shifting” which means that instead of choosing to handwash your laundry, you just run the washing machine in the morning rather than the afternoon. If this does mean that you learn to use less electricity in the process, kudos to you. That’s good for the environment and your pocket.

Signing up for Smart Hours means my pricing is weird all the time.
Under Smart Hours, your price will only fluctuate between 2 and 7, Monday through Friday, during the summer months. The rest of that time it will be at a constant lower rate. For that 2 to 7 time rate, you will be notified a day ahead what the price will be, allowing some planning time. Why only a day ahead? One of the reasons for this is that by the time they send you the rate for the next day, they have a pretty good idea what the weather will be and how that will affect electric generation.

I think this covers all of the main questions I’ve been getting, except for questions on how Smart Hours has affected me personally (How do you like it? Have you been paying more or less? Is it hard?). I’ll address those questions in my next post (Part 2).


My Favorite Okie Books

...As in, my favorite books on Oklahoma, not my favorite books by Oklahomans. But who's to say the two can't share some list items?

I began to acquire books on Oklahoma biology in my teens.  Most of those books I acquired due to schooling. I've only recently picked up the torch and again returned to collecting books on Oklahoma, but this time it is more fun because I have no classes to apply the books to. I can buy whatever I want. There are many more out there that I hope to later add to my collection so this list is not conclusive.

New Favorites

Oklahoma Hiking Trails by Kent Frates and Larry Floyd's - Gives good descriptions on many trails, listed by geographic area, with estimates on difficulty and length of time to hike them. My absolute favorite part about this book is that it shows each hike mapped out on a topographic map.

Oklahoma Off the Beaten Path by Deborah Bouziden - Although this book talks small towns and big ones alike, I use this one sort of like a travel guide to the small towns. It gives you some interesting things to see and good places to eat for a smattering of the less-touristed areas of the state; I find this particularly helpful to skim through before road trips. However, if you want one of these, get the latest edition, as  I have the 2007 print and some of the businesses have since closed.

Oklahoma Travel Guide from the tourism department - I know, right? This should be a 'duh' but it includes some handy things. I often use the spiffy chart of state parks that shows what is at each park; this alone led to us choosing Lake Murray for last year's camping trip, as they were on the chart as allowing full access for dogs!

I'm going to admit right here that I'm a sucker for maps, but also tell you with delight that the state government makes some pretty fantastic atlases. The two that I own are:

 Lakes of Oklahoma by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board - has lovely big color maps of all watersheds and lakes in the state along with interesting facts about each lake. Even more exciting (if you are me) is that some of the maps show the lake depths.

Oklahoma Wildlife Management Area Atlas byt the Wildlife Department - my newest acquisition. 

And while we're on the subject, this is not an atlas, but EPA's "Ecoregions of Oklahoma" map is excellent.

Old Favorites
After ecology, my favorite study area in school was taxonomy, so this should explain the following selections.

Forest Tress of Oklahoma, by the Oklahoma Forestry Department - this book has what is probably the simplest, easiest-to-use dichotomous keys I have ever had the pleasure to work with. I can usually get to identify my tree correctly quickly and on the first try, and the descriptions of the species are so succinct and the images that go with them so accurate that I am confident I'd know if I made a wrong ID.

Keys to the Flora of Oklahoma by UT Waterfall - on the flip side, this key is *not* easy to use, and I usually make at least one wrong ID going through it (I am a hobby botanist at best). The last time I tried to use it, I would have needed a dissecting microscope (which I do not own) to properly use the key. However, this is the most comprehensive key to Oklahoma's non-woody plants that I know of.

A Guide to the Study of Fresh-Water Biology- by JG Needham -  Not Oklahoma specific, but doesn't need to be; I have used this book a lot, and successfully, in Oklahoma streams.

So that's it, selections and favorites from my Oklahoma book collection, which I love to add to. (I did not even get into my wish list!)  Do you have favorites to add?


Science and Patriotism

My attitudes towards patriotism has changed a lot over the years. I'm a bit more ambiguous now than I used to be... which is strange, all things considered. On the 4th of July, I most like to remember my earliest thoughts and emotions on patriotism, and try to feel the way I felt before I started pondering cynical adult things.

This year the 4th of July brings it with an exciting announcement about the Higgs-Boson, and the entire world is a flutter. And I have to admit that I had been hoping the announcement, if and when it came, would come from Fermilab. You know - routing for the home team and all. Go USA! This is my current form of patriotism.

So I have been sitting here of course, thinking about the Higgs-B and the 4th of July, and it strikes me that patriotism and science are quite the pair.

Firstly, you have how patriotism contributes to science and how science contributes to patriotism. Some of our greatest advances have come from military technology, and we all know how federal spending supports science exploration. Federal dollars play such a large part in the science field that any cuts cause worry and commotion, and that the surest way to create research for a particular subject is to create a pot of federal dollars for it. I hope government and science have a prenup, because they may as well be married. The most obvious examples are military and space exploration... let us not forget (The Alamo?) Los Alamos! The Space Race, yet another glaring example.

Secondly, you have how the pursuit of science demonstrates some of our "American values". Persistence, hard work, inquisition, and independent thought. Is this why many of the world's greatest science discoveries and inventions happened on our homesoil? One of my favorite examples here are Thomas Edison's demonstration of hard work and persistence when he tried to create the light bulb thousands of times before succeeding. Albert Einstein was said to have praised America's merit-based system of rewards and our freedom of speech for fostering creativity and freedom in intellectual pursuits.

This last statement strikes me as almost out of place during a time when science and politics are  clashing in this bizarre imagined battle, but it's true. Science and patriotism - and certainly science and government - are joined at the hip, in a manner of speaking. They are like peas and carrots, peanutbutter and jelly, electrons and protons.

So, this 4th... Remember Los Alamos!  (hehe)