Is Vermont developing an enviro-business corridor?
In the spring of 1981, a wide-eyed University of Vermont engineering student and his soon-to-be-wife drafted a farfetched business plan: Manufacture wind-turbine “assessment” gear for a California-based market. From a small town in Vermont. Without much seed-money or technical know-how.
After graduation, the young couple took out loans and put their scheming into practice. The following year, David and Jan Blittersdorf founded “NRG Systems” — shorthand for “EN-ER-GY” — out of a rented home office in Bristol. “We were sort of young and naïve,” admits David, now 50. “We grew it ourselves.”
NRG’s Vermont location was more liability than perk — at first. While honeymooning at a 1983 industry trade show in Minneapolis, David recalls, he and Jan were accosted by a “multi-billion-dollar” California wind exec. “You’re in Vermont?” asked the brash West Coast competitor incredulously. “What’s going on there? Nothing.” By 1984, virtually all of NRG’s clients were headquartered on that golden coast.
Today, David relates this anecdote with relish. Why? The Californian who once dismissed NRG has since closed up shop. But the Blittersdorfs’ Hinesburg-based company counts clients in more than 100 countries; in each of the last two years, NRG Systems has grown by a whopping 50 percent. Now David, a Pittsford native, has ceded his CEO-ship to Jan. That frees him up to run EarthTurbines, a new residential wind-turbine manufacturing business, out of a second LEED-certified warehouse.
The Blittersdorf success story speaks to a regional ground-swell. NRG is one of a growing number of environmentally oriented businesses now settling in the Champlain and Mad River valleys. Carbon off-setters NativeEnergy of North Ferrisburgh and Draker Laboratories, a renewable-energy firm in Burlington, were both founded in the last 10 years. Add a few biodiesel, farm-methane and wood-pellet producers, along with a cadre of Montpelier-based environmental consulting firms, and the Champlain and I-89 corridors outline an environmental-business empire.
Other micro-regions have used their specialty products to “brand” themselves — think Omaha steaks or Silicon Valley microchips. Hence the question: Are west-central-Vermont enviros laying claim to a “green triangle,” with its vertices in Burlington, Middlebury and Montpelier? Moreover, how is the region affected by statewide policy squabbles over renewable energy?
The answer to the first question is: yes and no. While no state officials or business associations have officially named the “triangle,” several administrators and green-business types supply anecdotal evidence of its existence. They say the Champlain and Mad River valleys haven’t quite reached Silicon proportions, but confirm that the area is coursing with entrepreneurial zeal. Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie terms the Middlebury-Burlington-Montpelier polygon the “nucleus” of Vermont’s “Green Valley” — an official state term.
How did the “triangle” emerge? According to Blittersdorf, start-up companies such as NRG came on the coattails of 1960s and ’70s back-to-the-landers — the hordes of DIY hippies who experimented with small-scale alternative energy, among other things. But growth leveled off in the mid-1980s, a period Blittersdorf calls the “dark ages” of green tech. That’s when post-embargo oil prices returned to deceptively low levels, and President Ronald Reagan axed Carter-era incentives for renewable energy.
Judging by its present digs on Route 116 in Hinesburg, NRG recovered from the dark ages quite nicely. As the sneaker-wearing Blittersdorf chats with a reporter in a plush, second-floor conference room, flannel-clad employees flit between plant-filled cubicles on the first floor. In the parking lot, Toyota Priuses flank a grove of solar panels. Out back, a huge wind turbine thwacks against the January sky.
So how did David and Jan pull it off? He locates the beginning of a nationwide green renaissance around the turn of the millennium. By the late 1990s, Clinton had reversed some of Reagan’s policies. And general public consciousness of environmental issues was swelling, priming the market for renewable-energy products such as wind turbines and solar panels.
Blittersdorf asserts that the bulk of Vermont’s enviro-biz growth in recent years has concentrated in the renewable-energy sector. Before, he says, “environmental” industry was based on “environmental remediation” — i.e., hazardous clean-ups and environmental consulting.
“The atmosphere has changed 500 percent since 2000,” says Daniel Hecht, executive director of the 8-year-old Vermont Environmental Consortium (VEC).
Interestingly, Hecht’s nonpartisan nonprofit was conceived by then-Governor Howard Dean in 1999, just when Blittersdorf was co-founding the Montpelier-based trade association Renewable Energy Vermont (REV).
But Hecht has a different notion of green business. Like Blittersdorf, the nonprofit director acknowledges a distinction between the environmental-remediation and renewable-energy sectors, as well as a recent “proliferation” of locally based “energy” firms. His “green enterprise” mantra, though, is more inclusive — it includes wind and solar firms such as NRG and Draker Laboratories, but also “integrated” systems such as Central Vermont Public Service’s renowned “Cow Power” farm-methane initiative.
“When VEC began,” Hecht reflects, “people didn’t know what green enterprise was! Now everybody’s embracing green enterprise as the core of the future for Vermont.”
Hecht may differ with Blittersdorf on the relative prominence of renewable energy within “green enterprise,” but he agrees with the wind advocate on the “green triangle” concept, observing that a substantial chunk of Vermont’s green enterprise “clusters” around the “I-89 corridor.”
That assessment resonates with Andy Perchlik, executive director of REV. “That’s the value of business clusters,” he explains. “If there’s one failure, everyone can find another job without taking their kids out of school.” Like Blittersdorf, however, Perchlik contends that Vermont’s green triangle is ultimately about clean energy, not the more nebulous field of “green enterprise.”
“I don’t think it’s gotten to the point where people are saying, ‘I live in Springfield, but I want to start this clean-energy business, so I really need to move to the Champlain corridor,’” he speculates. “But it’s not too far away.”
Netaka White, executive director of the Middlebury-based Vermont Biofuels Association, offers a similar prognosis. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of Vermont-based small-scale biodiesel churners increased from one to almost 30. White affirms the triangle region has been the financial and strategic “hub” of such exponential growth.
But White also cites quality-of-life considerations as a driving force behind the green triangle. He moved here from Oregon 13 years ago in part to pursue a “sustainable” lifestyle. While White says the green triangle is Vermont’s environmental epicenter of “strategic capacity,” he stresses that it’s also home to “passionate, experienced and motivated” individuals.
Experience and motivation, though, only go so far — just ask Scudder Parker, whose energy-efficiency expertise failed to win over voters in the 2006 gubernatorial election. The green triangle may figure prominently in Vermont’s business scene for years to come. But in the end, its success will depend to some extent on a supportive policy infrastructure in Montpelier.
According to Lieutenant Governor Dubie, Governor Jim Douglas and the state legislature “get it” — that is, the state’s role in bulking up Vermont’s eco-friendly economy. In 2004, Dubie launched the “Green Valley Initiative” after an inspiring business trip to China. Though the initiative has only managed to raise “humble” sums for actual promotion — $21,000 for VEC over the last three years, for example — the lieutenant governor insists his role is merely providing the “pom-poms” with which to “champion the idea.”
“The seeds were planted by many people,” he attests. “And the fruit, the harvest, in my humble opinion, is starting to come.”
Dubie reports that three influential college presidents, including UVM’s Dan Fogel, are championing the green-valley concept. The Agency of Commerce & Community Development, the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation, the Snelling Center for Government and the agencies of Transportation and Natural Resources, he adds, have all thrown their hats into the environmental-business ring. And Dubie says he’s “quite certain” that, despite Douglas’ veto of H.520 — last year’s comprehensive energy bill — similar legislation will pass this coming session.
Not surprisingly, alt-power wonks aren’t as sanguine about the state’s record. NRG’s David Blittersdorf says that the Douglas administration doesn’t offer enough regulatory support — i.e., “group net metering” or “feed-in” tariffs — to the growing renewable-energy sector. Perchlik of REV contends that Douglas is “politically” biased toward the environmental-remediation industry.
David Mace, director of communications for the Agency of Commerce & Community Development, insists the REV critique doesn’t come from an “objective” perspective; he characterizes Blittersdorf and Perchlik as “frequent Douglas administration critics” who are “heavily aligned” with the Vermont Democratic Party.
“Obviously, they’d like to see more investment of taxpayer funds into projects they’re in favor of,” Mace explains, referring to a longstanding dispute between REV and Douglas over the future of wind power in Vermont. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t working where we can.” Mace mentions a state partnership with the Barre-based Distributed Energy Systems — formerly Northern Power Systems — as evidence of institutional commitment to wind power.
Chris Stone is an environmental-remediation consultant who directs Montpelier-based Stone Environmental. Earlier this month, he attended a “green enterprise” brainstorming session hosted by the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation and the Snelling Center. Stone holds up that event as evidence of the state’s attention to renewable-energy interests. He also notes that Governor Douglas invited a broad cross-section of environmental leaders to join Vermont’s most recent China-bound business delegation.
“What we don’t need in the greening of Vermont is a political turf war comparable to the 1968 billboard law,” cautions Hecht of VEC, which, as a government-affiliated nonprofit, does not take legislative positions. Though conceding, “Wind has been impeded by policy,” Hecht downplays any perceived “rivalry” between wind- and solar-power advocate REV and his own organization.
As for west-central Vermont’s enviro-biz future? While allowing that the region contains a recognizable “industry cluster” of green business, state administrator Mace wishes the question didn’t chafe his statewide vision. “I don’t know at this point that you can locate a ‘ground zero’ of the green valley,” he muses. “Where is the green valley? The answer, at least in our eyes, is that the geography is less important than the concept.”
Try telling that to Hinesburg-based Blittersdorf. “We’d like to see more wind in our backyard, but, policy-wise, we’re being blocked,” he laments, slamming Governor Douglas’ unflagging support of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. “Why is this?” he asks rhetorically. “Well, it’s the status quo, the old stuff” — i.e., an antiquated notion of environmental innovation.
“The whole world has changed, in that most people now realize it’s a finite place,” Blittersdorf says, thumping both palms on his conference table. “You can no longer just get more oil, more natural gas, more minerals every year. But our legislature and governor still aren’t there yet,” he suggests, “as far as understanding these limits.”