Building a DIY Power Plant
Written by: Woody Welch
Photo Captions by Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2018
Stacking Functions is a term used in Permaculture to describe the process of getting several functions out of any one structure or project as opposed to only building for one function or use. For example – you could build a roof just for protection from the elements, or you could build a roof that is designed to protect, capture rain water, heat water, grow food, create a space to sunbathe, or a small green space in an otherwise urban void.
Building a stacked functions structure out of repurposed wood, which costs 20 cents on the dollar, that produces more power than one can use is extremely rewarding. By intentionally designing a structure to serve more than one function you can get more out of your time and investment, as well as the opportunity to harness the natural elements and energy that mother nature provides. I wanted to redesign my carport as a structure that was going to protect my vehicle from the elements, create shade and provide a cool space in the summer, collect rain water and look good while producing plenty of power for my 1800 square foot home and 400 square foot shop on a half acre homestead.
I have been designing and building repurposed wood structures for over 20 years. They always pose challenges but I would argue that the rewards are well worth it. I am also a professional photographer and artist by trade working almost exclusively in the sustainability field. I have always dreamed of having my very own power plant. When I looked around my 1950’s era homestead in New Braunfels, Texas and asked “What is the worst thing on my property and how can I turn it in to the best thing?”, I looked to my cheaply built 1970’s era aluminum and styrofoam low hanging carport. At only 7 ft. tall, it swayed in the wind, looked like a sore thumb and provided shade but leaked heavily through the styrofoam seams during storms. Turning this liability into an asset while stacking as many functions as possible was an obvious choice.
Having been in the field and spending many hours in a helicopter, documenting solar power plants around the globe, I knew well that the technology had not only come of age but that the price per kilowatt had become competitive enough to directly compete with even the cheapest of fossil fuels. In 2016, the cost per kilowatt to produce solar power vs. natural gas met parity and solar is only getting cheaper as Moore’s Law and Economies of Scale kick in. After doing some calculations and adding the fact that we are collectively not paying for the pollution of burning fossil fuels (effectively avoiding true cost accounting) I looked to solar power as one solution to these growing challenges and unintended consequences of so-called “cheap fuels”.
Combing through craigslist for materials, I found a listing for “big wood” with many photos of large stacks of dimensional lumber. I set out immediately to Buie Lumber company in Boerne Texas, where to my surprise, I found mounds of returned overstock and weathered (just like I like it) lumber for the picking. After several trips, many photos, and back and forth conversations shared with my architect I made the leap to purchase about $18,000 worth of wood for just $4000, delivery included. And although we had to “field mill” some of the larger timbers in my driveway and wrestle with making sense of non-matching, far from perfect wood, my master carpenter Kirby Fry and I finally started making sense of how we would get this done.
Hiring a carpenter that is flexible, open-minded, and creative is paramount for a project like this and makes working through the challenges fun and even invigorating. Kirby Fry of Southern Exposure was the perfect choice.
When we finished with the structure, or “mount” as it is called in the solar industry, we capped it with a high quality standing seam metal roof installed by the experts at Varni Roofing. The “standing” seams are perfect for mounting solar brackets and the surface is preferred for rainwater collection. The material is known to last for over a hundred years, which is backed up by a recent University of Texas study.
We woke up to three inches of snow on the day scheduled for installation, but Freedom Solar was not deterred! They promptly swept and sprayed the snow off the roof and within 6 hours I had 15/345 watt SunPower panels installed on my Tesla Port and wired into the grid. Working around some upgrades to my old electrical riser, we were still able to get the system installed in what seemed to me like record time.
Six months later the system is producing 127% of my energy needs. That extra 27 percent is going to my neighbors to help with peak use times. I have a $2100 rebate/credit on my utility bill that will pay for my trash/recycle/water/sewage for the next 6 years and I am awaiting the arrival of a Tesla Model 3 so I will literally have sun-powered transportation very soon. We estimated and designed the system to be perfectly tailored for my particular needs and hit the proverbial nail on the head.
After $7500 federal tax credit and an additional “friends and family” cash rebate my total out of pocket for the system is under $4000. The carport itself cost around $10,000 to build but I estimate it added $20,000 of value to my home.
It’s hard to quantify how it feels to be part of the solution to what I consider being some of the larger challenges we face as a species but I can tell you this – I do sleep a little better at night knowing I have invested wisely in a system that is smart, valuable, redundantly capable, durable and more powerful than I ever really imagined.
I highly recommend imagining a solar power plant of your very own.
Earth Repair Corps, Interview with Pete VanDyck – 2018 06 20
By Kirby Fry
K: Pete, it has been my honor and privilege to work with you.
I believe that we first met during a permablitz maintenance event at Kealing Middle School around July 9, 2014. Since then, you have stepped up and filled some very essential roles for the sustainable design movement in Central Texas.
My gratitude goes out to you, and to EVERYONE else implementing best design practices.
Please allow me to ask you six or seven questions.
- How, and or why, were you drawn to regenerative design systems?
Thanks, Kirby. Yes, we did meet at Kealing Middle School and this is actually a photo from that day, good documentation there! Wow, I can’t believe how time flies! At first I was just interested in working outside with the land and plants, but I also had concerns about my own health, the health of society, and the health of our environment which made me want to look deeper into natural systems. It was the same as many other folks who find this path – it usually happens from either a health issue due to poor nutrition, environmental conditions, or being hurt in mainstream society. I was sort of all three. Permaculture Design has opened my eyes to the answers for all of these problems and since then I have been more focused than I had ever been in my life.
2. How did you first learn about permaculture and sustainable design in Central Texas?
After being stationed in San Diego, California for six years I finished my contract with the military and began searching for a new career. During my time there I had developed a skill in finding the right people to help me accomplish my goals. Really all you have to do is find the highest source of knowledge that you can and learn from that person. So I went seeking out Mr. Kirby Fry, who seemed to be that person when I moved to Elgin, Texas. I think I found out about the maintenance blitz at Kealing Middle School through Facebook. I first learned about Permaculture from Ben Falk’s great book “The Resilient Farm and Homestead”.
3. What are some important site selection criteria for a homestead or a farm that we should know about?
It’s very important to find a place with the capacity for redundant sources of water. That includes good wells and room for ponds and rain tanks. Access is also important – why buy land if half of it is inaccessible? Access can often be an afterthought when buying land, many folks figure that they’ll just be able to figure it out and everything will be fine. This can really throw a wrench in the gears when you are building a house and construction trucks cannot get to the building site, or the poor access keeps washing out, or roads are too muddy to cross, etc. I like a short road that’s high and dry, easy to maintain, and reliable.
The best place to put a road is on a ridge, so when you are looking to buy that property with the long easement that crosses multiple gullies my advice is to find a better one. I also like properties that are 20-50 percent forested. Trees make everything so much more comfortable in Texas, but I never advise buying fully forested properties. We ought to stay out of the brush and help reforest the land that needs the help. It’s also important to have a good solar aspect. Western facing hills can be brutally hot in the summer; I often find the biggest trees on the north side of the hill. Hills facing northeast seem to be the most comfortable in Texas for plants, people, and animals. I provide very reasonable pre-purchase assessments for anyone buying property. I can save people years of heartache with this service and I don’t think anyone should close on a property without getting professional eyes on it.
4. What are some important skill sets that we should know about in order to design a sustainable homestead?
It’s so important to find the right community. Getting a Permaculture Design Certificate is a really fantastic place to start. That way you learn how to think, instead of what to think. Then each person finds his or her own niche from there. Not everyone has to be a farmer or designer, we still need builders, teachers, medical professionals, and all the other important services. Equally important as the skill sets themselves is the person’s ability to apply their skills within the new paradigm we are creating through regenerative design. Designing a sustainable homestead really takes a vast amount of knowledge, having that community of like-minded individuals makes everything much smoother.
5. Please share with us some of your “hard knocks,” or what to avoid scenarios, that you may have encountered along your path.
Moving towards a regenerative lifestyle is not easier, it’s just different and can often be more difficult, but the rewards are great. Avoid long narrow properties; these usually cannot be sustainable or regenerative. Although long and narrow properties usually provide great return on investment for real estate investors, the shape of the property makes it awkward to properly place elements of a design in a way that is beneficial to the new landowner or the environment. Avoid long narrow access easements. Flash flooding is probably the most destructive force in Texas, stay out of the lowlands and keep dry. Seek professional advice as often as possible to find the cheapest and most effective solutions that will save money in the long term.
6. What are some of your aspirations for regenerative design in Central Texas?
I would like to see the re-hydration of the entire state of Texas so that our springs and rivers always flow year round. I’d like to achieve 100% ground cover 100% of the time on every project I am involved with. I think this great state we live in could become a beautiful work of natural art that is rich, abundant, and secure for generations to come. This is why I created my website, www.droughtprooftx.com. Other than that I just want to live peacefully and be a good example to others.
K: Thank you, Pete for your love of the land, your love of all life, and your love for wanting to do to help create agriculturally productive ecosystems.
Explosive abundance my brother,
Kirby Fry, Earth Repair Corps
Earth Repair Corps Resumes Natural Building Project in Hotchkiss, Colorado
Last Saturday, Lacey, Carolyn, Tony, Randy, Kimberly, and I converged on our sister site between Crawford and Hotchkiss, Colorado (AKA Crawkiss) to resume work on the Casa de Guadalupe outdoor kitchen.
We managed to put up a 5/8″ OSB roof deck, run 4 courses of earth bags along 2 sides of the building (approximately 16″ tall), and 12″ of cob on top of the earthbags with a wooden 2″ x 4″ frame embedded onto it.
Photo’ 1) Tony and I setting the 5/8″ OSB roof decking.
Photo’ 2) Lacey and Carolyn completing the earthbag counter top / wall.
Photo’ 3) Randy and Kimberly finishing up the 41″ tall earthbag and cob wall. We also installed a 2″ x 4″ wooden frame at the top of this wall system that will help to mount a marble counter top on top of.
Photo’ 4) I have to say that we enjoyed cobbing more than earthbagging, I believe that Tony would agree as well.
Photo’ 5) Our farewell picture with Kirby, Carolyn, Kimberly, and Randy.