Saving energy with a passion

It’s no simple coincidence that Alex Blackmer and his family live in an off-grid solar home in Redstone Canyon west of Fort Collins with a 360-degree “blow your mind” view of Horsetooth Mountain and the surrounding rocky hillsides. Neither is it a matter of random good fortune that Blackmer heads up The Atmosphere Conservancy and is currently president of the 5,000-member Colorado Renewable Energy Society.

He’s been constructing buildings and thinking energy efficiency since he attended high school at the independent-minded Putney School in Putney, Vermont. While a student there in the 1970s he had his first experience with helping to construct a building.

After graduation from a general studies program at the University of Michigan, his construction skills enhanced by summer work, he hitchhiked across the far west. “I was going to be the next Jack Kerouac,” he said. But not forever.

Back in Ithaca, New York, his uncle hired him to build a house. “I was a little nervous about that first one,” he admits.

As he moved into residential construction, developing his own company, he came to appreciate his liberal education. “It allowed me to think creatively and write well, both skills that have stood me in good stead,” he said.

By 1994, he’d married high school sweetheart Laura Raynolds and they were the parents of a daughter, Courtney. When Raynolds was offered a position teaching sociology at Colorado State University, the family packed up and moved to Fort Collins. They bought a house in town and Blackmer began to plan.

Within a year their current brown cedar frame house had taken shape on 40 acres in Redstone Canyon and Blackmer had launched Enersol Design and Construction, a company he formed to build off-grid solar homes in Larimer County. Using his home as a model, he built five homes in Redstone Canyon during the next few years.

By 2008, Blackmer’s vision had grown. He wanted to have a larger impact on society as a whole—in the state and in the world. “I felt I needed to do more than build off-grid homes in remote areas,” he said.

His response to his expanding vision was to form a non-profit organization focused on providing solar energy in schools, affordable housing and multi-family housing units, and public buildings. The firm’s stated mission is to achieve social equity and economic vitality by working with non-profit organizations to develop renewable energy projects and energy education programs that improve the environment.

Called The Atmosphere Conservancy, the organization has a for-profit subsidiary ensuring the continued financial health of the organization.
Blackmer takes advantage of incentives and tax credits offered by state and federal governments to make his projects viable. He has formed an investor group that provides funds for his projects. He contracts with the users who agree to buy back their systems over time. “Investors get a double bang for their buck,” Blackmer said. They make a good return on their money, contribute to the health of the environment and assist the non-profit user. Recipients of the solar power realize savings from lower energy costs provided by solar installations they could not otherwise afford.

The Conservancy has built solar arrays of varying sizes for housing authorities in Loveland and Milliken, for the Denver Rescue Mission, Kersey water treatment plant, and is currently fitting Braiden Hall at CSU with roof-top solar.

Coming full circle, the Conservancy will soon construct a 500-watt solar array in Vermont that will provide 95 percent of the Putney School’s power.

Not long after the move into Redstone Canyon, daughter Lisa joined the family. Both girls, now graduates of Poudre High School, know nothing of life hooked up to power lines. One of Blackmer’s goals when he built his house was to show that just because a house was off-grid, it didn’t need to be “funky” or less comfortable than a traditional home.

Each girl has a first-floor bedroom surrounded by windows to let in light and give a sense of living outdoors. Through much of the house, tile floors over a concrete base hold heat produced by direct sunlight from windows and hot water pipes that run under the tiles.

Blackmer has increased the solar panels on his house over time but still relies on some that he bought used and are now 28 years old. “Back when I first bought solar panels they were $10 a watt, now they are $3,” he said, indicting that solar power is now giving traditionally-produced power a run for its money.

He has installed effective insulation, practices conservation and produces energy from solar panels to make it possible to meet the energy needs of an active family. He estimates that it would have cost close to $20,000 just to bring a power line to his house, money that he was able to apply to producing renewable energy.

Newer banks of solar panels are mounted on an adjacent horse barn and shed, funneling power into a bank of golf cart batteries in the basement. They can store enough power for three or four days. A back-up propane generator and hot-water heater are seldom pressed into service.

Some panels are dedicated for electricity production, others for producing heat. Blackmer has installed switches that shut off power to appliances when they are not in use. “Phantom power can consume 25 percent of the energy in a household,” he said.

Electricity powers the pump that draws water from an 800-foot deep well for household use. The garden is irrigated with rainwater captured in tanks and flows down to the garden with help from gravity and a small windmill.

Every evening when he returns from his Fort Collins office, Blackmer plugs his Chevy Volt into an outlet in his driveway powered by home-grown energy. The vehicle runs for 50 miles before switching to a gasoline back-up, more than adequate for his half-hour commute to town.

Blackmer’s career continues to evolve powered by his dedication to clean, affordable energy in a world where the need is great and the practicality and affordability of renewable energy grows steadily.

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