Following the Sun
The energy business, according to Blitterdorf: "You set some goals, but things always change."
Est. 2005 | Williston | 24 employees
What has made David Blittersdorf one of Vermont’s most successful alternative-energy entrepreneurs? In a word, adaptability.
When Blittersdorf founded Hinesburg-based NRG Systems in 1982, wind energy was in its infancy and the wind-measurement instruments his company manufactured were in high demand. But when federal tax incentives for wind projects dried up in 1985, the industry took a nosedive.
So Blittersdorf followed the market for wind across the oceans, selling his sensors and “met towers” — which test the potential for wind power — to countries such as Denmark, Spain and Greece. Over time, Blittersdorf says, industry leaders came to view NRG as a bellwether for the wind industry; selling globally allowed the company to survive until the U.S. wind market started to pick up.
Blittersdorf eventually handed the reins of NRG to his wife and business partner, Jan, and in 2005 founded Earth Turbines with the goal of manufacturing reliable, small-scale wind turbines. Blittersdorf grew up in Pittsford, Vt., within sight of the world’s first large-scale wind turbine on Grandpa’s Knob. Inspired by the Arab oil embargo, he built a working wind turbine for his senior-year engineering project at the University of Vermont.
“I wanted to get back to my roots of building small wind turbines,” Blittersdorf says.
But his idea quickly ran into problems. Local zoning rules made siting wind turbines problematic all over the U.S., he says. He discovered many towns have 30-foot height restrictions, ruling out wind towers of any height.
So he adapted again — branching into solar power and renaming the company AllEarth Renewables. He designed a solar-panel array that uses a motor and GPS to track the sun as it moves across the sky. Blittersdorf found that his AllSun Trackers captured 45 percent more energy than fixed, roof-mounted solar panels. Meanwhile, the company continues research and development on the wind-powered Earth Turbine 2500.
“My personality makeup is, I tend to be able to adapt by seeing new realities,” says Blittersdorf during a tour of AllEarth Renewables. “You set some goals, but things always change.”
Thanks in part to lucrative tax incentives for solar power, the solar trackers are fueling a rapid expansion at the 24-employee company. It’s on pace to complete 1000 solar installations in 2011, including the largest solar array in Vermont — a 2.2 megawatt sun farm in South Burlington. The project is made possible by the state’s “standard offer” energy subsidy program, which pays solar-power generators twice the going rate for electricity.
Blittersdorf also credits AllEarth’s “power purchase agreement” lease program with driving growth. Businesses, homeowners and nonprofits can lease an AllSun Tracker for $4400 — far less than the $33,000 it costs to buy them outright — and own them after five years for an additional $7880. In return, AllEarth Renewables benefits from associated solar tax credits while it retains ownership of the systems.
To date, AllEarth Renewables has only sold solar trackers to customers in Vermont — among them American Flatbread in Waitsfield and Concept2 in Morrisville — and already it has outgrown the 15,000-square-foot office and warehouse it occupies in an industrial park off Route 2A in Williston. It’s getting another 10,000 square feet by taking over a former Hertz rental-car office next door. The original office, painted in hues of blue, has been dubbed the “wind room,” while the yellow-and-orange former Hertz office will become the “sun room.”
“You have to figure out your niche, whether it’s making rowing machines or solar trackers,” Blittersdorf says. “Figure out your niche and just overwhelm it.”