Mike Leonard says that he rarely has a typical day at work. “On Monday, I might be stuck in the office or shop in Boise opening up the rest of the week for service and inspection calls,” he says.

As owner and founder of Aurora Power and Design Inc. in Boise, which designs and installs alternative-energy systems such as solar panels on homes and businesses, Leonard never knows exactly what’s next. Will it be more work around the office and shop or working on logistics for a trek across the high plains and canyon land of southern Owyhee County. That’s the site of one of his solar energy systems on a 100-year-old cattle ranch in Nevada.

As for his schedule for Thursday and Friday? “Who knows?” says Leonard. “We have clients from Arizona to Couer d’Alene and no two systems are alike.”

Leonard began his career in alternative energy at the age of 14 when he designed and fabricated a Pelton turbine hydro plant for his grandfather’s cabin at Silver City, Idaho. Today, he and a crew of five operate Aurora Power and Design.

While taking college courses on a variety of subjects, Leonard built diesel generators for telecommunications sites. Repairing solar installations for his diesel clients, he found himself repeatedly building a better mousetrap. Leonard took various courses that interested him, but he never got a degree. “Over the years I ended up combining all kinds of different technology classes and for the most part taught myself,” he says.  “At the time I started working there just wasn’t any information so I had to learn on the fly.”

For the past 20 years Leonard has been teaching alternative-energy classes and is considered a leading expert in the field.

A Typically Non-typical Day
On a sunny Tuesday morning in April, he packs up for a 90-minute drive north of Boise to the Boise National Forest, hauling a snowmobile to the snowline. He then makes his way by snowmobile to Silver Creek Plunge Resort, a remote mountain hot springs close to the Middle Fork of the Payette River near Garden Valley, Idaho. The rustic resort has campsites, small cabins, a mini-mart, horseshoe pits, a playground and a volleyball court. Open year-round, it is accessible only by snowmobile during the winter.

Silver Creek’s system consists of a 15,870-watt solar farm charging a 7,000-amp battery bank that supplies the rustic resort with 336,000 watts of stored energy powering a 28-kw inverter group. 

In simple terms, the power from the solar panels flows into the controller then into the batteries, charging them. That energy is taken out by the inverters and turned into useable household current.

There is also a 60-kw backup generator that provides more than enough power to service the cabins, campground and convenience store.

Before the fall of 2002, the resort had limited electrical power, relying on three expensive generators to run continuously during the peak months and as needed during the off-season when the resort hosts hunters and snowmobilers.

A wall of power inverters converts the DC (direct current) power to AC (alternating current) to run the resort. The inverters were state-of-the-art equipment when Leonard installed them in 2002. They still are. If Leonard were to redesign the system, he would be able to increase power production by 10 to 30% with the present inverters.