Tracking Solar Power From Vermont
- By John M Turner
As a part of our sustainable business series we have had the opportunity to interview several sustainability leaders in Vermont businesses who are taking steps to make a difference not only in the state of Vermont, but across the world. Most recently we had the chance to sit down with Doug Goldsmith, who is not only a UVM business degree alum, but is Chief Operating Officer for AllEarth Renewables, an independently owned designer & manufacturer of solar generating tracking systems based in Williston, Vermont.
Could you tell me a little about the history of All Earth Renewables?
We were founded by David Blittersdorf, who also started NRG systems, as Earth Turbines and initially made small residential wind turbines. He was also a UVM grad, a mechanical engineer, and an entrepreneur, and he wanted to work with turbines and wind power but realized that for various reasons, the small wind market was very challenging. So we looked at solar as a business we wanted to get into because the costs were coming down so much and the opportunities were huge. So we set out to make a solar tracker, we call it an active tracker because it follows the sun all the time, and to do it in a way that everything you need to build the tracker is included in one box, and one pallet. The market and the economics were moving, and we have a unique product that fits that market.
So where will you go now, what’s the next big step?
It’s a good question. The big challenge in solar right now, like in many new technologies, is it benefits from tax credits. It’s common knowledge that fossil fuels have a ton of tax breaks too and even nuclear still requires federal insurance guarantees and federal loans in order to make it work, however the reality is that the solar tax credit significantly reduces in 2017, and our industry is focused on answering the question; how do we continue to grow and survive without it? This means we have to continue to drive out costs: from the solar panels, the rack, the inverter and the install. They all need to get cheaper, while at the same time improving efficiency, reliability and adding more features. The decision to go solar has to be simpler for consumers.
When do you think solar will reach a tipping point so it’s accessible to everyone nationwide?
In some areas right now where energy prices are both higher and utilities charge differently, for example with a tiered system where power costs more either based on total usage or time of day, solar power has already passed the tipping point from an economic perspective, however public perception is lagging behind although it’s getting there, we still have a way to go. I think it depends on the market. As energy prices continue to tick up, and the natural gas boom declines, my guess is that the huge adoption rates of the past five years across utilities, commercial and residential, are going to continue.
In terms of working for AllEarth Renewables, what has been your favorite part of it all?
For me the favorite part is building something from the ground up and being involved across the organization. I spent a lot of my career at a business that had been around for one hundred years and we had good years and bad years, but there was very little you could do to completely derail the machine from where it is. At AllEarth Renewables we switched products, we hired people, we learned how to do it, we were figuring out the marketing, and the sales, and the operations, and the engineering all at the same time as a team, and that’s really satisfying to have everyone in the company not only be very smart, but really committed to the mission of what we do. Working together to create a new company and products that are trying to do the right thing, dealing with resource scarcity, the stuff that my kids and primarily my kid’s kids are really going to have to deal with, it's a good feeling.
What are some examples within your daily operations of how you enforce the ideas of sustainability?
We are fortunate, partly because of the people we attract who are believers of renewable energy and want to work for us, but also because of the programs and the culture that we put in place. We have a lot of employee engagement with sustainability and run an employee benefit program called REWIRE that financially rewards employees for their sustainability efforts at home and in the workplace. We monitor their energy usage and every year we see our employees using less energy and improving their personal carbon footprints. We feel it’s the right thing to be doing, and employees get a financial benefit for doing it.
Do you publish a sustainability report?
We haven’t opted to do that yet although through our REWIRE program, we do keep track of carbon usage and we can see how usage changes over time. We try and make sure that our mission and our commitment to doing the right thing from an environmental and sustainable perspective comes through in our marketing and our interaction with customers and employees.
Do you find it difficult to find the right people who are invested in sustainability when looking for new hires?
It isn’t hard to find people that are invested in sustainability, and we haven’t had a hard time finding people that believe in our mission. We try to hire locally if possible, and are very fortunate in that there are a lot of people who would like to come here to Vermont to work for a solar company in the renewable energy field. That’s the good thing about UVM’s new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA program, people will come to Vermont for a year and see what it’s like to live here before getting employed by someone – it’s a great way to attract people to our state and help grow the renewable energy businesses that are here.
Big thanks to AllEarth Renewables, Doug Goldsmith and UVM star student reporter, Rachel Burt for the interview.