Thousands of Solar Trackers

By Cam Mather

When we first moved to this off-the-electricity grid house, the existing solar panels were situated on the ground in a fixed position. We adjusted them twice a year to make the angle flatter so that they could take advantage of the different positions of the sun during the year, but it was a huge hassle. My amazing neighbor Ken and I often discussed how the system could be improved and he ended up designing a tracker for me, and then he helped me to put it together. First he taught me how to weld. I was so proud of myself, and then I noticed that all of my “beginner” welds ended up encased in 6 feet of concrete. But the end result was all that mattered. Now I could track the sun each day as it moved across the horizon. Ken also engineered a wonderful, simple, car jack system that allows me to change the angle of the tracker gradually over time, with next to no effort. Commercially available automatic trackers do this on a minute-by-minute basis, tracking both the movement of the sun across the horizon as well as its height in the sky. They also cost thousands of dollars, so building my own was a better way to go.

Cementing the post for our first tracker. You can see the panels on the ground on blue steel in behind.

Commercial systems track automatically but mine is manual. Two or three times a day I move the panels to track the sun across the horizon. Every couple of weeks I crank it higher or lower as the sun waxes and wanes through the equinoxes. William Kemp gives an excellent technical description of trackers in “The Renewable Energy Handbook.” Since I work from home, I really disliked having fixed panels, especially during the long days of the summer, when there were just too many hours when the panels were not located in the most advantageous position. Moving the panels to a tracker greatly increased how much “juice” I can squeeze out of the panels and was a huge tonic to my anal-retentive energy obsession.

This is the second tracker that we built and it is now full of solar panels too.

We call our home in the country “Sunflower Farm” because we love sunflowers and plant lots of them. I played around with trying to incorporate a sort of dual meaning logo, which you could interpret as “Sunflower” or “SunPower” Farm, since it’s both. Sunflowers are the perfect metaphor for our place because they are nature’s solar tracker. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to suggest that we are imitating sunflowers with our solar trackers.

In their bud stage sunflowers actually track the sun. This is called heliotropism. In the morning sunflowers are turned east toward the sun and then over the course of the day, motor cells in a flexible section of the stem track the sun to the west. Once the sunflowers are large enough to bloom they lose this ability. This works well for us because our house is east of the garden, so all of the wonderful yellow heads are turned towards us. Nature is truly wondrous.

One of our many sunflowers – Nature’s Solar Trackers!

I spend a lot of time in the gardens these days, getting up before dawn to water, while it’s still relatively cool. When I see how fast everything is growing right now it amazes me. I look at all these plants soaking up the sun during the day, converting the sun’s energy through photosynthesis into growth and it’s an incredibly invigorating place to be. The author of the book “The Celestine Prophecy” suggested that forests and green areas are so invigorating because they radiate energy.

While I was out in the garden squashing potato bugs yesterday morning I came across one plant that was badly infested and a lot of the foliage had been eaten. Luckily it was an isolated incident. That plant probably won’t produce as many potatoes this year because it won’t have as many leaves to convert solar energy into the plant-based energy and starches that it can store in the underground tubers.

This is the back of the first tracker with a cobweb that was made overnight. Man those spiders are industrious!

My gardens and the 150 acres of trees on my property are truly wondrous places. My property is populated by thousands of solar absorption devices. Trees are gigantic solar absorbers, taking carbon dioxide out of the air during their photosynthesis and storing it in their woody branches and trunks. Eventually when they die I’ll burn that wood efficiently. The firewood will release the same amount of CO2 that the wood sequestered, back into the air. Vegetables are basking in the sunlight and converting it to starches to make the food that I eat. At the same time, my solar thermal system is absorbing the sun’s energy and heating my hot water. By using the sun to heat my water, I won’t have to burn any fossil fuels. I won’t be responsible for releasing CO2 that has been stored for eons until we drilled to extract it from the earth. My photovoltaic panels are converting sunlight to electricity and helping me to accomplish a lot of work, offsetting thousands of calories I’d have to expend my self. Electricity is a wondrous thing that makes our lives insanely great. My electricity, like my plants’ energy source, comes from the sun.

SunFlower farm is SunPowered. And it’s a good thing.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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