Camas couple seeking solar power craft unique solution

Innovative 'solar canopy' structure combines beauty, function

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Workers from New Energy Works construct a timber frame for a solar canopy outside Randy Friedman and Debbie Nagano's Camas home on Monday, Nov. 18. (Contributed photo courtesy of Randy Friedman)

When most people think of solar-powered homes, they envision solar panels affixed to a flat roof or sitting in rows in a field.

But one Camas couple is proving you don’t have to have a flat roof or lots of acreage to go solar.

“When we decided to move to Camas for retirement, we got a house two years ahead of time,” explains Randy Friedman. “Unfortunately, this house was not suited for rooftop solar given its layout and location at the edge of the forest. Luckily, there was a big terrace in front that would be perfect for solar.”

Friedman and his wife, Debbie Nagano, had experience with solar power when they moved to Camas this summer. They’d powered their Nissan LEAF electric car using solar power at their previous home in Sacramento, California, and Friedman, a longtime renewable energy advocate who worked as the California government affairs manager for the United States Navy’s Southwest Region, had seen the human cost of our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“I watched many of my colleagues deploy for long periods in the Middle East. Like it or not, the primary reason was protection of oil supplies,” Friedman said. “It made me want to focus my personal life on alternatives (to fossil fuels).”

Friedman and Nagano knew they wanted to power as much of their home as possible, and charge their Tesla Model 3 electric car at their new Camas home, which sits above Forest Home Park on Northwest 10th Avenue. The idea wasn’t unique in their new neighborhood — in fact, their across-the-street neighbors, Cassi and Rick Marshall, had put 40 solar panels on their home just a year before Friedman and Nagano moved in and another neighbor has nearly 30 solar panels on their home — but the forest in their backyard, steep slope in their front yard and multiple pitched roofs made solar seem impossible at the Friedman-Nagano home.

“I started searching for ways to construct solar on this slope,” Friedman said.

He wanted something that might double as an attractive space for he and Nagano to relax and enjoy their new neighborhood, with its sweeping views of the Columbia River and Mount Hood.

“I found it being built in New England,” Friedman said. “The company was SunCommon (and) they were changing the game in Vermont.”

The company’s solar canopy was an attempt to build an attractive, usable solar-power structure.

“Vermont is a beautiful place, and we want solar to fit into our built environment and working landscape,” SunCommon co-founder James Moore explains on the company’s website. “I designed SunCommon’s new Solar Canopy to be both beautiful and functional, embracing Vermont’s classic heritage and its clean energy future.”

The canopies have an open timber frame — made from Doug fir trees milled in McMinnville, Oregon — and bi-facial solar panels that can collect sunlight from the sky above and the reflective ground below.

The design was perfect for the Camas couple’s home, but the solar canopies had only been installed in New England. That fact didn’t deter Friedman.

“I got in touch with a solar company in Portland that was willing to take on this new type of solar structure and we’ve been working on the design for about 18 months,” Friedman said.

Tom Crowe is the project manager for Elemental Energy, the Portland-based solar company Friedman has been working with for more than a year. On Monday, Crowe watched employees from New Energy Works, the company that builds SunCommon’s solar-canopy structures, construct the timber frame for Friedman and Nagano’s new solar structure.

“We’ve never done a project like this,” Crowe said of the offbeat solar installation. “This is showing that solar can be beautiful, not just functional.”

Justin Jaycox, of New Energy Works, a nationwide design and timber-framing company headquartered in New York with a studio in Portland and a shop in McMinnville, Oregon, agreed the project was innovative.

“We’ve been working with Randy for more than a year,” Jaycox said. “It was a challenge on Randy’s end (to get solar onto his Camas home), but he’s a forward-thinker. This is a creative solution for anybody who wants to go solar. Randy is a true pioneer.”

Friedman hopes the unique solar structure, which will be powering his electric vehicle and some of his home energy needs by mid-December, will open people’s eyes to what individual homeowners can do to help wean themselves and their families from fossil fuels and to take a bite out of climate change.

“We want to show a lifestyle recognizing we all have to change our behavior,” Friedman said. “We have to be good custodians of our planet to leave our children, grandchildren and future generations a habitable planet.”

Although the expense of the solar canopy may be out of reach for some families, Friedman said he thinks of it as something that adds to the value and beauty of his new home in the way that a similar kitchen remodel or re-carpeting of the house might appeal to other homeowners.

“This house is 15 years old. We could have bought all new carpets, but we did this instead,” Friedman said. “People think nothing of remodeling their kitchen or redoing their floors. Last time I checked, a kitchen remodel won’t provide the energy your car and home uses for the next 30 years.”

The couple also is working with a landscaper to make the space surrounding their new solar canopy more sustainable.

“This will be a food forest,” Friedman said, pointing to his steeply sloped front yard. “There will be apple and hazelnut trees.”

The landscaping will include plants that feed humans as well as birds and pollinators — something that pleases the couple’s longtime friend, Susan McElroy-Knilans, also known as “the Camas Bee Lady.”

“Our goal was to restore this hillside to a natural, productive landscape … and add beauty to the neighborhood,” Friedman said.

The couple hopes others in Camas will catch on to more sustainable living and that they can use their new 600-square-foot solar canopy to teach neighbors, friends and maybe even local students about eco-friendly living and landscaping.

“It seems many houses you see being built in Camas could incorporate something for long-term sustainability,” Friedman said. “This is something we could do as individuals. And it’s a positive step into a better future.”