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The Solar Barn, Part 1
Sunday, October 2, 2011
If everything goes according to plan we should be receiving a used cargo shipping container on the farm this week.  The purpose:  to become the first 'module' of a solar-powered barn made largely from recycled materials.  The final product will likely take years to build, but the idea is to piece together a weather-proof structure that can be used to house livestock in inclement weather, store feed and equipment, and act as Greenfire Farms' corporate headquarters, the latter purpose now being filled by an office located in a small closet in our incubator shed.  (The current office is capable of holding one limber person with a body mass index no greater than 20.  Claustrophobics need not apply.)
The solar barn will look nothing like the classic and beautiful barn that exists in our imaginations.  We simply can't afford the cost of build a vaulting wooden structure out of new materials.  Instead, our solar barn will look like a mash-up between the International Space Station and a junkyard.  Our solar barn will ultimately consist of two used cargo shipping containers stacked at right angles with two sheds built underneath the overhangs.
These shipping containers are a marvel of modern engineering, and what they lack in aesthetic appeal they make up for in structural strength and low cost.  Shipping containers are designed to be stacked eight high and can support almost a half million pounds of overhead weight.  They withstand the horrific storms that sometimes lash the open decks of cargo ships over the course of many ocean crossings.  And, they're cheap.  A used 20' shipping container can be purchased for $2,000 or less on eBay.
The challenge created by converting shipping containers to a habitable space is that the steel skin of the shipping container absorbs heat and transmits it into the interior of the container at ferocious levels.  One study showed that on the open ocean in tropical climates the internal temperatures can rise to almost 140°.  In Florida, this could mean that unless we cleverly neutralize this tendency we are not building a barn but instead the world's largest toaster oven.  But, we have some heat-abating strategies to try, and we'll be revealing them in the months ahead.
And finally, if we can afford it our ultimate goal is to take our post-modern barn off the grid and run it exclusively on solar electricity.  The per-watt cost of solar power is quickly dropping (currently at about 20% a year), and we hope to use enough energy-stingy technology and buy enough photovoltaic panels to create a completely autonomous barn.  Our plan is to be on the grid in 2012 and wean ourselves in 2013.  So, if you have any interest in alternative energy you can learn from our mistakes as we piece together our solar power system.
Stay tuned....