BLACKFOOT – Some people may remember Steve Allen as the expert on Victorian architecture who spent a summer 18 years ago stripping multiple coats of paint from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Blackfoot and giving it new life, but he’s changed his focus from restoration painting to solar energy and is back to offer his expertise to the people of his hometown.
“I believe it’s Idaho’s time to go solar, and I’m the hometown renewal energy specialist who can help people join the solar revolution,” Allen said.
Allen came to Blackfoot in 1969 when his late father, Charles Allen, was appointed rector at St. Paul’s. After graduating from Blackfoot High School in 1976, he enrolled at the University of Idaho, studying industrial technology, but what he really wanted, he said, was to be a part of the renewable energy revolution and was looking for a school that offered a program in that field.
He found it at Humboldt State University at Arcata, CA, where he wrote a special majors program called “Appropriate Technology.”
He explained that appropriate technology is defined as technology that’s suitable to the social and economic conditions of the geographic area where it’s to be applied. “To me, that meant Idaho,” he said.
Although the course has since become a minor, Allen said, he graduated with it as his major, and the bachelor’s degree he earned incorporates some of the elements of the appropriate technology movement that started in the 1970s, which focuses on forms of renewable energy like solar, wind, and hydro power. “I was instrumental in implementing several projects at the university in the ‘80s,” he said.
For others who might be interested in studying in the field, he said Humboldt State has a house called “CCAT,” for Campus Center for Appropriate Technology. It’s a demonstration house to showcase many of the earth-friendly technologies taught at the course, such as solar (photovoltaic and thermal as well as hybrids of both) and wind power.
Allen provided the following link: https://ccat.humboldt.edu/
He came home to Blackfoot about 10 years ago and has since been doing his best to interest people in switching from conventional forms of energy to solar in their homes and businesses. He began doing energy consulting for businesses here and in the surrounding communities, and facilitated one of the many energy-saving programs promoted by Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power. “I would do a lighting survey and retrofit older style lighting with newer high efficiency lights,” he said. “This measure substantially lowered the electric bill for many businesses in our area, and the utility companies would rebate the customer in cash for up to half the cost of the project.”
Allen said he has retrofitted many businesses in southeast Idaho, but the project he’s most proud of is re-lamping Blackfoot City Hall about six years ago. “I saved the city up to $2,000 a year while giving the employees much better lighting,” he said. “The lights are still burning bright to this day.”
Allen is currently a renewable energy specialist for CR Solar, a division of CR Electric, an electrical contracting company out of Utah that has been in business for almost 20 years. “We are a complete solar installation company,” he said, “meaning customers get wholesale prices on all the hardware, and the warranties will be honored for years to come.”
He hadn’t devoted his education in renewable energy entirely to benefiting businesses, Allen said, but uses it to help individuals with their projects as well as doing projects of his own, sometimes for a hobby, as well as experimenting and inventing new ways to use the energy.
“I’ve created many solar cookers over the years,” Allen said, “as well as other cool solar gadgets.” He said one of his solar cookers can be found in his own backyard, where his children use it for cooking things like hot dogs. “You can cook anything on one that you can cook on a stove top,” he said. “I’ve cooked soup, chicken, even steaks on mine.”
He started a Facebook page named “Renewable Energy Idaho” to educate people about solar energy, Allen said. “It has fascinating facts, project updates, and contact information.”
He’s now preparing to take his expertise to the countryside where he hopes to interest agricultural producers in switching to solar energy.
“I can show them they can get a grant for as much as $20,000 for pumping irrigation water using solar under the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). It can also be applied for by dairies for milking machines, or for any agricultural use.”
He also said people who install solar energy systems this year can receive a 30 percent credit on their federal income taxes. “That’s basically a 30 percent discount on the cost of the system.”
Allen said he starts a project by using a computer program to analyze a customer’s power production using satellite imagery of their “solar footprint” and yearly consumption from their power bill, then comes up with a design that best fits their needs. “Many times you can create 100 percent of the power for your electricity needs from your solar panels at the same cost or less than you currently pay for your utility bill,” he said.
To take advantage of solar energy, Allen said, a good solar footprint is fundamental. He said that means a south-facing roof or a spot of ground where panels can be mounted to face the sun unobstructed. He said this can sometimes be accomplished by the removal of trees, repairing roofs and taking other measures, and the cost can be included in the installation package.
Many people don’t know that Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power have “net metering” programs, Allen said. “I want to help homeowners and businesses realize what a tremendous benefit it is that the utilities are offering them. By qualifying for the net metering program, homeowners are allowed to lock into today’s low power rates for the next 20 years. This is important because Idaho is the fastest growing state in America, and the utility companies predict higher prices over the coming years.”
As explained by an IPC representative, the company’s program involves installing specialized meters where solar panels are in use. The power produced by the panels goes through the meter, and any not required for the owner’s electrical needs goes to the utility, where it’s banked. During times of no sunlight, like winter or consecutive cloudy days, when their panels aren’t producing, they get a credit for their banked kilowatt hours.
While not everyone who produces their own solar power stays connected to IPC’s power grid, the rep said, most homeowners do it to ensure they have a reliable and consistent source of electricity. They also rely on the power grid for the rush of power needed to start up large appliances like air conditioning units.