Electricity! This is Magical Stuff

by Damian Pelster
Thanks to Damian for sharing his renewable energy story. You can share yours too.

Solar Arrays
Sunny Boy 1 and Sunny Boy 2. Damian’s first and second solar array

My wife and I moved to Kentucky from California shortly after the birth of our only child, Audrey. My wife originally hails from Northern Kentucky, and most of her close family still live in the area. She wanted our daughter to grow up near family, I wanted her to grow up in a setting with a few more trees and a lot less concrete.  I’m lucky enough to have a job that is in demand nationwide, and my wife secured an early retirement. We packed our bags and left a modest home in a subdivision for a larger home on 14 acres in Kentucky. Even though California is currently known to have a high rate of solar penetration (well over 100,000 residential arrays and counting), I don’t think that coming from there really had anything to do with our decision to build our first solar array. The truth is probably that I am an insatiable tinkerer. A backyard experimenter. Inspector gadget.  I was that kid who would take apart mechanical objects and put them back together just to satisfy my curiosity about the mystery of how they worked. And the biggest mystery of them all? Electricity! This is magical stuff! A force that powers many of the objects that we take for granted every day. A force that allows us to live in the method to which we’ve grown accustomed, but how many people truly understand it? I certainly didn’t as a child. But with electrical power being at the center of the creation of most of the tools, devices and comforts that surround us, it was the one thing that has always fascinated me. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise then that I found myself in a career as a lineman for a large publicly traded utility company. This is an interesting career choice as a strong renewable energy advocate at this point in history, but maybe we’ll talk more about that later.

As a person who generally can’t sit still for too long, landing in Kentucky with 14 acres of elbow room felt almost like being reborn, and unleashed some type of pent up desire to build and experiment and create…………..well……..anything that I set my mind to. At some point while in the process of configuring our home and property the way we wanted it to be, building fences, remodeling bathrooms, learning to weld aluminum and steel, it came to me: Energy independence. That sounded sooooo good to me. I was tired of that bill showing up in the mailbox every month. It always felt like the “secret toy surprise” when I opened the envelope. How much was I getting tapped for this month? My thought processes came not only from an economically driven standpoint, though.  I had been interested in solar panel arrays for quite some time.  I didn’t know much about the way they worked, but I knew that I wanted to lessen my family’s dependence on energy created by dirty fuels. I had seen the documentaries detailing the ravages of mountaintop coal removal. I felt the pain of the environmental wreckage and the displacement of the wildlife caused by the destruction of the earth. I also live about ten miles due East of a large coal fired powerplant on the banks of the Ohio river. We get the most beautiful sunsets in the evenings on many summer nights, reds and oranges and purples that I’ve never seen before. It took me awhile to realize that those beautiful sunsets were being created by particulate air pollution emitted from that very same plant. A plant that the company that I work for owns and operates. Air pollution that my family and I are breathing every day. And I said to myself “self, you need to do something. You need to use your skills and knowledge to lessen your impact on the natural world. You need to set an example for your daughter to see and carry forward in her life. You need to take responsibility for your own footprint, and share your experiences with like minded people who really care about the world that they will leave to their children.” So here I am, three solar panel arrays later, trying to share my story with you……………………….so you can pass it on.

After doing a great deal of research about solar panels, inverters, string configurations, mounting alternatives, wire dimensioning, my home’s average annual kwh consumption……………(I can hear you saying  “yeah buddy, I get it…….you looked into a bunch of stuff)………ETC, we took the plunge. My goal was to offset the entire average annual consumption of power needed for my home. I chose my materials. I chose my suppliers. And I went to work. Well, it WAS work, but this work for me was pure fun. Experimentation. Seeing if I could reach the goal that I had set for myself by using all of the information that I had obtained, the skills that my hands had learned, and a little sweat. The result was what my wife and I refer to as Sunny Boy 1.

In the photo at the top of the post, sunny boy 1 is the array in the background, supported by previously used (recycled) utility poles (now where could those have come from?). The entire framework that contains the panels themselves is hand welded aluminum. The front of the array has rollers welded to the frame, which roll in hand welded channel supports, best seen on the far right in the photo. There are four steel cables affixed to the top of the frame, which go up and through four rollers pinned to the top of the poles. The cable then goes down to anchor supports in the ground behind the array. This system allows the entire array to rotate between 0-55 degrees based on the season and the angle of the sun. It has been in place for about 4 years as of this writing.   I’m excited to report that this array performed almost exactly as planned in the first year of operation. Averaged out over the course of the year, it completely met all of our conventionally powered home’s energy needs. It is composed of 45 evergreen 205 watt panels (9,225 watts total). The DC power cables are trenched in underground to the house, where they feed a SunnyBoy 8000 watt grid tied inverter, mounted on the wall in the garage. The huge advantage of sb1’s construction method was not evident until I built Sunny Boy 2, the array shown in the foreground of the above picture. The ability of sb1 to rotate up in the winter has proven to be huge. The system will produce nearly as much energy on a clear mid-winter day as it does on a peak sunshine summer day due to the ability to be inclined. Power is actually converted and transferred better in the cold, so the panels seem to prefer a cold clear day over the hot summer. This may surprise some people who may think that solar panels do very little during the winter.  Winter inclination is also a huge advantage because the day after a snowstorm hits, sb1 has generally shed its snow load, while the fixed arrays are buried and producing nothing. The disadvantage? Let me tell you, that’s a lot of welding. The frame fabrication and assembly was an extensive odyssey, but it’s made of aircraft grade aluminum and has proven to be incredibly resilient in all types of weather. Nothing bothers this array, it has been completely maintenance free from the day that it was turned on.

You may wonder, then, why I built another array, when sb1 provides all power necessary for the house. Number one, I love solar! This stuff is fun! Number two, I wanted to try a different design. (I can’t sit still, remember?) Number three, my wife and I have been interested in purchasing electric cars for several years. We decided to add the extra capacity to support the charging of two electric vehicles. In this way, we can free ourselves from the approximately $400.00 that we spend on gasoline each month, and spare the air and environment in the process. We haven’t gotten around to purchasing the vehicles yet, primarily due to the fact that I can’t find one with the range that we need that costs less than $80,000.00.  Unfortunately we haven’t won the lotto yet and our names are not Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, so we’re waiting for the next generation of electric vehicles to come around that have a good range as well as a price that is contained within our current galaxy. Those vehicles are definitely in the pipeline, but that’s a story for another day. This paragraph is all about sunny boy 2, seen in the foreground of the photo above. We built this array as a family project, my wife and daughter helping directly in its construction. It is a fixed array at approximately 14 degrees of tilt, consisting of 33 Suntech 295 watt solar panels (9,735 watts total).  It also feeds underground to a Sunnyboy 8000 watt inverter mounted on the wall in the garage. The first one that I bought has been bulletproof, so why change a good thing? The advantage of this system is that the construction was much simpler than sunny boy 1. The really interesting thing about building arrays in different ways has been tracking their production throughout the year. You begin to see a pattern emerge of which array is performing better at different times. I’ve kept a journal with regular entries every few days for all three of my arrays since they were brought online. SB2 is a fantastic array. It works fabulously, and has never had any maintenance issues. The Suntech panels are my favorite of the three brands that I have installed. Their build quality is excellent, and the power output is consistently high. They also seem to produce better than the other panels on cloudy days. The prime time for this array is definitely early spring through late fall. It will trump the production of SB1 during those times of year, likely due to the 500 or so watt capacity advantage coupled with the angle of the sun being more favorable. The downfall comes in winter, when the angle of the sun is lower in the sky, and snow can cover it for much longer periods than SB1 because of its fixed angle. I suppose that I could go out and clear the snow after a storm, but we have such a huge surplus of electricity that other responsibilities take priority. In the winter, SB1 becomes the clear production winner. Its ability to be angled directly at the sun and the fact that it sheds snow quickly puts the others to shame. Even with low winter production, SB2 easily produces as much or slightly more than SB1 over the course of an entire year, so a person would have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each type of system to see which fits their situation better. I have since designed what I think will be a much simpler and all around better method with which to build a single axis rotation array. Unfortunately I can’t add any more capacity at my house due to design constraints of the grid that the current ones are tied to, so I’ll have to wait until I convince a friend how great these things are to try out my idea.  So now that we’ve gotten through SB2, the next picture will convince you that I am a glutton for punishment, slightly insane, or just really, REALLY love solar panels. I’ll let you decide. I’d like to introduce you to SB3…………..

Sunny Boy 3
Sunny Boy 3. Damian’s third solar array. Shading the back porch and generating electricity.

So here’s my story with this one, and I’m sticking to it……..

We had a big windstorm years ago, I don’t remember if it was the remnants of Hurricane Ike or some other weather phenomena, but the end result was the same. Our rear patio used to have a pretty wooden gazebo that we had our patio furniture under, and there were decorative pear trees planted at the corners for shade. When the storm left, our gazebo was a pile of scrap wood laying against the fence, and the trees would provide shelter for our beautiful native birds no longer, having been snapped off like matchsticks at the base. The concrete pad at the back of the house was reduced to the equivalent of a nuclear wasteland for several years after that event. It is South facing, and in the summer became completely useless. The heat of the sun and glare from the concrete made it uncomfortable to use for any length of time, and simply became a barren desert that we generally avoided. Then one day, a lightbulb turned on in what passes for my squeaky old shrunken brain. I was thinking about what a waste of space this area had become, when I had the epiphany: Why not build another solar panel system that would not only add to our already abundant surplus of energy, but would provide shade and protection from the sun at the same time?  Voila…….SB3 was born. SB3 consists of 21 Trina 290 watt panels (6090 watts total) that are also linked via underground cable to a ….you guessed it…..Sunny boy 6000 watt inverter mounted in the garage. We custom fabricated the structure from more aircraft grade aluminum, which I can’t say enough good things about. It is completely maintenance free and never corrodes. I even think it’s kind of pretty, but I’ll leave that up to the eye of the beholder. The net effect is that it has turned an area that was avoided at all costs to a peaceful and comfortable haven from the sun, surrounded by beautiful plants. It’s a wonderful place for family gatherings. I integrated an L.E.D. lighting system underneath that can be changed to any color imaginable, providing some additional security to the rear of the house at night, as well as the ability to extend those family gatherings after dark if the occasion arises. All of the arrays have integrated seamlessly with the grid, and I’ve had zero maintenance issues or failures of any kind. Thanks so much for sharing our solar story. I could go on and on writing about a dozen different issues that surround solar panels today, from what is going on at utilities to government policy to various system design benefits and issues, but I won’t ask you to stay with me through all of that, I’ve taken up enough of your time. I will sum up our family experience with solar panels very quickly, my wife is always telling me to simplify my explanations. So here goes:
Solar panels are cool……………….nuff said.

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