WILLISTON —The high ceilings contribute to an aircraft-hangar ambiance. So does the silk-screened hang glider suspended in the lobby of Earth Turbines’ Williston headquarters.
What appears to be a 1940s-era fighter engine sits idle on a forklift in the 10,000-square-foot shop space.
David Blittersdorf, 52, the company’s founder and CEO, says the market for small-scale wind generation is ready for takeoff.
He should know. Blittersdorf, a Charlotte resident, founded wind-power testing company NRG Systems 28 years ago. With his wife and business partner, Jan Blittersdorf, he weathered industry downdrafts — and eventually propelled Hinesburg-based NRG into profitable, global markets.
For now, Earth Turbines will remain closer to home. Local demand and increasingly predictable government rebates for green energy have afforded the company a steady updraft in the Green Mountain State.
Two years ago, Blittersdorf had a single employee. Now 16 people (most of them engineers) work full time at the Harvest Lane building. By the end of the year, Blittersdorf said, their number will likely double.
Requests for domestic, grid-wired wind power, meanwhile, have increased exponentially, he added.
“We’ve been getting calls from all over,” he continued. “We’ve had to be patient. It’d be a big mistake to try to sell a turbine to someone in Texas or North Dakota.
“We don’t have a dealer network,” he said. “It’d be like buying a car but having to send it back to Detroit for servicing. The strategy all along has been to develop our testing in Vermont before we go nationwide.”
What’s the attraction? Blittersdorf said more and more people consider turbines a sound, long-term investment: In areas with moderate wind (most of the Champlain Valley), a single turbine will crank out 2.5 killowatts, or the equivalent of one-third to one-half of typical residential use.
Blittersdorf’s turbines aren’t built for off-the-grid living, however. To the contrary: they’re designed to feed (and sell) surplus electricity back to the regional utility in a transaction known as net-metering.
The cost of a single turbine, installed, hovers around $30,000. Federal and state rebates can knock that price down by at least $10,000, Blittersorf said — and will likely become more generous in coming years.
Earth Turbines has 12 prototype units up and running in Vermont. Another 14 units are due up by spring.
Until recently, the rollout has been low profile. The tilt-up, monopole towers go up quickly, and by industrial standards, are easy on the landscape: they rise 100 feet from the ground, versus four times that height for “wind-farm” towers.
Within a month, Earth Turbines will likely cease to be a stealth operation.
Rise and shine
This week, Blittersdorf is finalizing contract details with the Vermont Telecommunications Authority that will place up to 200 towers in remote, broadband-challenged corners of the state. Most of them will perform the dual service of generating electricity for landowners and handling cell and wireless broadband service.
The match, Blittersdorf said, makes good use of his company’s joint expertise in micro-electronics.
“For years we’ve been building remote testing equipment that wakes up once a day and phones home with data,” he said.
Earth Turbines’ proprietary tower designs, he continued, is “game-changing technology” for cell carriers, which routinely pay at least twice as much to get the same altitude. Earth Turbines proposes to erect power-and-cell equipped towers, preconnected to the electrical grid, for about $60,000 apiece.
Under the VTA plan, landowners will get the power supplement free.
Last month, VTA Director Bill Shuttleworth gave the green light for a pilot project in Grafton that will link up power and cell companies beneath a wind turbine.
If it performs well, Shuttleworth said, the template could slash costs of land acquisition, building access roads and running new power lines — obstacles that have historically kept cell carriers out of rural Vermont.
Blittersdorf said his product’s competitive advantages extend beyond what he calls the “instant gratification” of plug-and-play installation.
A patent is pending on the company’s direct-drive rotor — an innovation that eliminates the need for an inverter (a device that converts direct current to alternating current, and which adds to a turbine’s bulk and cost).
Trim, upgradable electronics are a part of Earth Turbines’ inheritance from NRG, as is the smaller company’s adherence to low-inventory, “lean” manufacturing.
“We’ve learned to be patient. What we build is based on customer demand, not on forecasts about what they might want,” Blittersdorf said.
He shops out specialty manufacturing, yet encourages cross-training and versatility among its in-house employees.
That includes training them to fail now and then.
“I tell people the faster you fail, the better,” he said. “You don’t want to get into a position where everybody’s just protecting their butts. As long as you learn something and don’t repeat the mistakes, you’re further ahead.”
The lofty low-down
In conversation, Blittersdorf often refers to his work as “play” — a necessary ingredient, he said, to his entrepreneurial regimen.
He’s not disturbed that the business probably won’t break even for another year. Nor does he consider selling to a multi-national corporation once Earth Turbines turn a profit.
Yet he’s serious about the company’s mission.
“I want to build a business that has lasting power; I don’t want to retire anytime soon — maybe when I’m 70 or 80,” he said.
“My values include doing something for the world,” he continued. “We’re at a critical turning point. I’m excited because I’m a part of it.”
He looked up from his desk to the hang glider. It’s a recent hobby.
“I took it up to overcome a fear of heights,” he said. “It turns out I had a fear of falling — not a fear of heights.”