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.