WASHINGTON -- For Robert Allen, the president's shoutout in the 2011 State of the Union address was a game changer.
President Barack Obama cited Robert and his brother, Gary, as models of American innovation, noting that the brothers had reinvented their Michigan-based roofing business amid the recession with the help of a Recovery Act loan, and were now producing solar shingles.
"That's what Americans have done for over 200 years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen brothers, we've begun to reinvent our energy policy," said Obama. "We're not just handing out money. We're issuing a challenge. We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo projects of our time."
"My brother and I looked like two deer in headlights," said Robert Allen, who watched the speech from the first lady's box, in an interview with The Huffington Post this week. "We didn’t know that he was going to talk about us, and he made us the centerpiece of his speech that night."
In a lot of ways, Allen says, the brothers weren't ready for the kind of attention that Obama's speech would generate. They got hundreds of calls -- from people interested in investing, to people who wanted their shingles, to reporters who wanted to tell their story.
"The interest that was generated was so massive," Allen recalled. "It was so overwhelming at the time. We were just getting on our feet. We couldn't really capitalize on that … We could not keep up with the demand."
The Allen family has been in the roofing business more than half a century now. Robert and Gary's father started the Allen Building Company in Rochester, Mich., in 1950. The brothers took it over in 1986, and were among the contractors who helped fix the Pentagon following the Sept. 11 attacks.
They used a grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to buy new equipment and retool their factory to produce a new solar shingle that they had patented. Now, they provide solar installation under the name Luma Resources -- a reinvention that Allen says helped save the jobs of 35 employees.
Today, he says, the business is ready to not only meet demand, but to expand. "We're at the stage where we can turn the notoriety that we got, and are still getting, into growing and seeking strategic partners to further grow our markets," said Allen.
Their shingles, he said, are already in use around the country as well as in Canada and Jamaica, allowing homes and businesses to generate solar power using photovoltaics affixed to shingles. The company's six staff trainers have taught dozens of contractors around the country to install the shingles. But the brothers are looking for new partnerships that will help them grow further.
The major energy policies that the president outlined in that speech, however, have not come to fruition. Obama called on Congress to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels, and to set a goal of generating 80 percent of electricity from "clean" sources by 2035. (Obama also called for a clean energy standard in his 2012 speech.) Congress has not taken up his call on fossil fuel subsidies or renewable energy legislation since then. And Obama, too, has been criticized in some quarters for not doing more to push Congress on passing legislation dealing with these issues, outside of the speeches.
Allen says those types of policies would help his business continue to grow. But he doesn't blame Obama for their failure to materialize.
"I do not envy the president in the position he's in. He's had more geopolitical events than I can name that he's had to deal with, all while he's trying to steer the country in the right direction on so many of his policies, especially energy," said Allen. "Alternative energy is a highly politically charged subject. It seems like the two parties have chosen alternative energy as one of their battlegrounds. He has not had a friendly Congress to enact his energy plan."
Luma has, however, benefited from the executive action that the president has taken on climate change. In his climate change policy rollout last summer, Obama set a goal of putting 100 megawatts of renewable energy on federally subsidized housing by 2020. Luma was already providing the shingles for a pilot solar project in Yale Acres, an affordable housing complex in Meriden, Conn., and with Obama's directive spurring further installations, Allen expects to put solar on more units in the complex this year. And he says the company, like other renewable energy manufacturers, will benefit from new carbon standards for power plants from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Three years later, Allen looks back on that State of the Union night fondly.
"For an average guy to have something like that happen to him, you can be nothing but humbled by it. I was, and still am," he said. "The president picked a good company to shout out about, so we're forever grateful for that and always will be."
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