The HUB: Here comes the sun

AllEarth Renewables outshines traditional energy competition

Nov. 17, 2011

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

AllEarth Renewables President and Chief Executive Officer David Blittersdorf stands beside one of his company’s ‘AllSun Trackers’ behind its corporate headquarters in Williston. AllEarth completed construction on the South Burlington Solar Farm — Vermont’s largest solar installation — in June. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

AllEarth Renewables is hot right now, but it’s still doing more than its share to cool the effects of global warming.

The Williston-based AllEarth Renewables, Inc. won the 2011 Business of the Year Award from the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce last week. It’s the latest in a series of honors for AllEarth President and Chief Executive Officer David Blittersdorf, who was also selected by Bloomberg Businessweek in June as one of “America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs of 2011.”

Although AllEarth today is primarily in the business of solar energy, Blittersdorf began his career in the early 1980s during the nascent days of wind power. Despite handing over the reins of the Hinesburg-based wind measurement company NRG Systems to his wife, Jan, wind remains a fascination.

“Wind still is a passion,” said Blittersdorf. “Being a wind guy, I was able to take a lot of the lessons I learned in wind energy to build a successful solar tracker.

“One of the biggest problems with a solar tracker is wind loading,” continued Blittersdorf. “I know all about wind, so we can make a tracker that can withstand hurricane force winds, and we use technology and ideas that really came out of the wind industry.”

Blittersdorf said AllEarth’s shift from wind to solar power came at the tail end of 2008, when America was in the midst of a financial crisis and raw prices of solar panels dropped by nearly half.

“I came up with our (AllSun Tracker) design on a napkin on New Year’s Eve (2009) at the American Flatbread (in Burlington),” Blittersdorf laughed. “Our nieces had crayons and they were drawing because they were waiting for the pizza, and I borrowed a crayon and drew up the design.”

AllEarth’s innovative solar tracker design — which is about 45 percent more efficient than traditional solar panels — uses GPS (Global Positioning System) and wireless technology to determine where the sun is going to be at every minute of the day.

“It’s a fairly straightforward system,” said Andrew Savage, AllEarth’s director of communications and public affairs. “The premise is that the tracker follows the sun throughout the day and it’s able to capture the sun’s greatest potential.”

Savage said that favorable changes enacted by the Vermont Energy Act of 2011 to the state’s net metering policy — which allows homeowners to receive credit on their electricity bill for excess solar energy produced — have been instrumental to AllEarth doubling its sales from $10 million last year to $20 million this year.

“Net metering is critical to our business, because that is how a homeowner, a business, a school or a municipality can afford to get into solar,” Savage said. “When the sun isn’t shining you’re able to draw from the grid as you normally would, and when the sun is shining you use the energy that you’re producing. And if it’s shining more than your usage, you’re actually putting it back in the grid. You’re essentially using the electric grid as a giant battery.”

Savage noted that although solar trackers aren’t cheap to install, their long-term benefits outweigh the upfront costs.

“Trackers essentially cost about $30,000, but after incentives it would be closer to $16,000 or $17,000, after tax deductions and rebates,” said Savage. “But once you own the system, once you’ve paid if off, you’ve got electricity for life. The panels are guaranteed for 25 years to be producing at a minimum of 80 percent of their original capacity.”

AllEarth is the biggest provider of solar energy in Vermont and is responsible for the state’s single largest solar implementation: a 2.2 megawatt solar farm in South Burlington containing 382 solar trackers that produces an average of 3 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

Savage pointed out, however, that AllEarth — and America as a whole — has just begun to scratch the surface of the sun’s energy potential.

“Enough sun falls on the earth in one day to power the world’s electricity demand for an entire year,” Savage said. “It’s pretty amazing to think of the possibilities there. “