Here Comes the Sun

Solar energy CEO David Blittersdorf, MDE ’77, is on an environmental mission with a very aggressive business plan.

David Blittersdorf, MDE '77, in front of one of his AllSun Trackers. Photo: Caleb Kenna.

DAVID BLITTERSDORF’S NEW OFFICE DOESN’T look lived in yet. It’s mid-April, and just a few weeks earlier, his six-year-old company, AllEarth Renewables, expanded its share of a converted warehouse space in Williston, Vt., a few miles east of Burlington. The new space is all warm greens, yellows, and oranges with bright maple wood trim, and Blittersdorf, MDE ’77, has upped his personal work area from a corner desk in an open room to an office with real walls and a door.

Such are the spoils when your start-up takes off. AllEarth, which makes, sells, and installs residential solar power systems, totaled $3 million in sales in 2009; in 2010, it was $10.9 million. This year, Blittersdorf is forecasting north of $25 million. They were just named the fastest-growing energy company in Vermont by Vermont Business Magazine, and Blittersdorf expects their current team of 26 to swell by 10 or more over the next few years. It is all moving at a rather furious pace, which may explain the rows of unpacked boxes. But among the piles, there are enough available artifacts to help him tell the story of how this all came to be—that is, how David Blittersdorf went from an engineer with an idea and not enough money to fill his gas tank to a CEO who gets meetings with US senators and starts sustainable companies successful enough to suggest that maybe all the environmental movement really needed was a good business plan.

 

TUCKED BEHIND A STACK OF WHITE moving boxes in Blittersdorf’s office is a dusty, two-tone gray wooden wind turbine blade. He fashioned it from a piece of Sitka spruce in a lab at Wentworth, a “Sept 77” etched into its base confi rming the vintage. It is the last remaining of three that he made for one of his earliest working wind turbines. “It wasn’t much more than blades and a car alternator,” says Blittersdorf, but it worked well enough to provide some power to his brother’s cabin. His wind energy obsession began at 12, when his father brought him to the top of nearby Grandpa’s Knob, site of the world’s first industrial wind turbine, built in 1941. At around 14, he built his first turbine to light a small shack where he would boil sap into maple syrup during the spring. At 17, for $150, he became the proud new owner of his brother’s Volkswagen Bug just as the Arab oil embargo of 1973 sent gas prices skyward. All of a sudden, his hobby started looking a lot like a solution. After his first successful turbine at Wentworth, he built another while studying at the University of Vermont (UVM), and, after graduation, started to get serious about the business of wind.

Photo: Caleb Kenna

THERE’S ONE PICTURE UP ON an otherwise empty bookshelf in his office: a framed shot of the current offices of his first company, NRG Systems—a red-and-black, 46,000-square-foot structure in nearby Hinesburg that is as much windows as it is walls, with a row of shiny solar panels lining a pond in front of the building.

The beginnings were much more humble. When he started the company in 1982 shortly after graduating from UVM, his office was a spare bedroom in a rented house in tiny Bristol, Vt. Initially focused on selling high towers with rudimentary wind measurement systems, NRG operated at a loss for six long years. “In 1983, I remember [my wife’s] brother invited us to stay at a house they were renting off the coast of Maine for the summer,” he says. Blittersdorf almost always looks on the verge of a smile, and he leans into laughs. “And we counted every penny we had, and it was $9.38. We looked at each other and said, ‘Is that gonna be enough money to get there?’” It barely was.

Business began picking up in the beginning of the 1990s. By then, NRG was offering customers everything they needed to start wind measuring—the sensors, the tower, the data logger, the software—all in one package, and targeting overseas sales as stateside tax credits expired, shuttering the majority of the national wind energy companies.

The US market began to surge in the early 2000s, and interest in wind energy has spiked of late. Google has invested millions in wind farms, and large-scale off shore installations like Massachusetts’ Cape Wind set a precedent soon to be followed by Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. But as the market’s interest began to peak, Blittersdorf’s waned. “I’ve been an energy guy my whole life,” he says. “Wind measurement was fun, but I just love things that produce electricity.” So, in 2004, Blittersdorf left NRG and set out to finally make good on his boyhood dream of creating power from out of thin air.

 

THE ROWS OF BOXES THAT HID THE TURBINE BLADE are stacked across the room from Blittersdorf’s nearly empty bookshelf. He taps them when asked how he made the transition from engineer to entrepreneur, marketer, and CEO. “Right here—these are my books,” he says. “I always say to young kids—my own, too—that when you get through college, that is just the start of a long life of learning.”

Experience helps, too. One of the lessons he has taken from his startups is the need for agility. After spending three post-NRG years developing and testing residential wind turbines, Blittersdorf completely reinvented his business plan in just a few weeks after the economic turmoil of October 2008. “All of a sudden, the world changed,” he says. “By January, we had a new mission.” Instead of pursuing the slow-developing wind turbine market, Blittersdorf, seeing solar panel prices cut in half, decided to refocus the company on residential solar power systems, while keeping the turbines in testing.

Today, AllEarth has one main product, the AllSun Tracker. The basic tech is this: A flat screen of solar panels sits atop a pole with a hydraulic pump that tilts the screen into the sunniest possible position as determined by GPS. Homeowners not only generate their own power but also send any excess power back to the electrical grid, rolling back their meter. The sales pitch is that buyers pay an up-front cost for installation and purchase, and then reap the savings of a dramatically reduced utility bill down the line.

Blittersdorf eschews the old stereotype of the sustainable business as more mission than market. “I like running big profit margins,” he says. “If you aren’t profitable, you can’t do good things, you can’t pay your people well, you can’t innovate, you can’t move.” And Blittersdorf is moving.

In addition to building a massive $12 million, 382-tracker, 25-acre solar farm in South Burlington this year, he says AllEarth will be adding another 400–500 AllSunTrackers to the 400 already installed in Vermont. “I’m projecting that if we can’t be doing ten thousand trackers a year in a few years, we won’t be staying up with the market,” he says. There are also plans for a fall expansion into what he calls the “hot solar markets” of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—places where renewable energy requirements have incentivized solar power production.

These kinds of government incentives have forced Blittersdorf to get politically engaged, hiring the former legislative director for Vermont’s US Congressional representative last year to help navigate the capital. The growing public demand for renewable energy has also made Blittersdorf’s experience a valued commodity among lawmakers. He often meets with US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to talk renewable energy, and he was credited in April by Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin for coming up with the state’s new plan for solar tax proposal incentives. (His relationship with the Democratic governor, for whom he was a major campaign donor, has drawn the ire of some state Republicans.)

He’s practical about his role in politics. “All these things [we are doing] are efforts to lower the cost of renewable energy so we can compete with the cost of the fossil fuels that we are trying to replace,” he says. In other words: Big Oil, meet Big Solar.

BLITTERSDORF, FOR ALL HIS ACQUIRED business acumen and political engagement, still has an activist’s zeal. “Fossil fuels are like winning the lottery,” he says, pulling out a poster that plots the beginning of our fossil fuel use in 1900 and the extinguishing of the supply around 2100. The smile has disappeared. “And you know what happens to the lottery winner—they go bankrupt.” Even if we shut down all the oil rigs and coal plants now, he says, there aren’t enough solar panels and wind farms to carry the world’s energy load—and not enough raw materials to produce enough to offset the difference. No, to have any kind of energy future at all beyond the next century, he says, we will have to go all-renewable and cut our global consumption by 80 percent—nothing less than a complete sea change in the way the world uses power. But it can happen, he says. Take the NRG building. It uses only 20 percent of the energy of a typical building and relies solely on renewable energy for power. “So, we showed what you have to do. It takes incredible effort, but it is possible.” His is a shared mission. The window in his office looks out onto the parking lot, where—in addition to the various environmental bumper stickers and hybrid logos adorning the cars—there is a near-omnipresent big green decal with a yellow sunflower surrounding the words “Solar Power” and a small AllSunTracker logo decorating one of the petals. It is a rare sort of exhibition of corporate spirit—the kind of thing that can happen when people view their job not only as a career, but also as a cause.

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