Robert Allen: Solar Energy is Here to Stay -With Video

Last December, the city of Rochester installed a solar roof on its fire station. Two months later, the owners of the Rochester Hills-based company that fabricated the roof found themselves sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union Address.

“It looks like we touched a nerve,” said Robert Allen, who owns Luma Resources and Allen Brothers Roofing along with his brother Gary. “If I could have captured the amount of interest … it would have been off the charts. We didn’t have the production capacity yet, and still don’t.”

A couple of years earlier, the brothers, who both live in Oakland Township, patented a system that makes their solar roofing panels the actual roof, not an add-on. Since then, they have been embraced by a lot of “friendlies,” as Robert calls them, including state and county government, business development agencies and political types.

Allen said no one should mistake the flurry of interest as a flash in the pan. He calls solar energy, along with other renewable energy sources, “a no-brainer” whose time has come.

“There’s no question it’s here to stay,” he said. “The majority of people think that this is just a fad, that it’s too early, the technology is not improving, it’s going to get better so why would they jump in first. …

“They’re uniformed.”

Solar technology has been around for 50 years, he said. And though there will continue to be tweaks, “It’s about as good as it’s going to be. They can’t figure out a way to make it any more efficient, to capture any more of the sun’s rays. … It’s more now marketing and acceptance and getting the cost down.”

Allen said he and his brother, who invented their unique system, saw the potential “from the very beginning. That’s why we put a patent on our intellectual property.” The company is now working on a joint venture for international distribution.

In the 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama called for the U.S. to generate 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources, and to become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. A 2008 state law created the Michigan Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. To meet its requirements, DTE Energy plans to invest $2 billion in renewable energy by 2020. In a nutshell, that’s how the city of Rochester won a $25,000 DTE grant to receive and install two electric-car charging stations.

“They’re not just being nice guys; you and I paid for it,” Allen said, referring to a $3 surcharge on DTE customers’ bills. “They’re not doing it even voluntarily. … They have to meet that standard.”

He expressed frustration that the city of Rochester didn’t get more involved in the DTE incentive program when it was offering incentives that likely won’t be matched in the future.

“The day will come, and this is not just me talking … electricity is going to become so expensive that you will not see a rooftop without solar that can have it,” he said. “When people start paying $500, $600 a month for their electricity…they won’t be able to sell their house.”

Add electric cars to the mix, and “Where is all that electricity going to come from?” he said. “There’s no such thing as normal again; normal has changed forever. …Things change, and energy is changing.”

Rochester city manager Jaymes Vettraino said the city was fortunate to get hooked up with the Allen brothers, “the right guy at the right time.” But he said there’s a balancing act between spending now in order to save later. He said he’ll want to see the performance of the fire department roof for at least a year before looking to add solar at other buildings.

“The DTE credits are really what made the return on investment,” Vettraino said. “If we need a roof replacement, I guarantee we’ll be looking at that product” again.

Beyond renewable energy, Allen said we shouldn’t forget about conserving energy as well.

 “Be green by means of conservation,” he said. “There’s a limit to all of this.”

By Annette Kingsbury

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