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Spring 2002


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by Kevin Foley

David Blittersdorf ’81 is rolling. His mustache jumps as he talks and his big engineer’s hands wave as he explains his life’s work: Developing wind as a limitless, clean, and economically viable form of energy. On this, his profession and passion, Blittersdorf could talk forever. “People don’t think about energy,” he says, almost plaintively. “But it affects every single thing we do, every single aspect of our lives. And we’ve got real problems.”

His wife and business partner, Jan Blittersdorf ’84, glances aside during a rare pause with a look of affection tinged with resignation.

“David,” she says, “is a one issue kind of guy.”

And his issue is suddenly right where the action is. The sometimes fuzzy line between obsession and prophecy, at least in regards to renewable energy, has become obvious lately after Enron imploded, California went dark, and the Middle East burst into flames. When oil hit forty-year lows in 1999, costly wind power looked ridiculous. Now, with energy demand and prices roiling, it is starting to look like the future.

If so, it’s a future Blittersdorf will help shape. His company, NRG Systems, manufactures the high-end sensors and monitors that make wind power plants feasible. The business is growing explosively, gobbling an increasing share of a global wind market that is growing at a 30 percent clip. And as president of the American Wind Energy Association, his advocacy for renewable energy has found a national stage just at the moment Congress is facing its most contentious debates about energy policy in twenty years. It’s an exciting time, but forgive him for not getting carried away.

“I’ve seen it before: We have an energy crisis, the crisis lessens, and then we forget,” he says. “That’s the old way, and we need new ways. We can’t do more of what we did in the past, we can’t think there’s a single magic answer — cold fusion, or Arctic drilling, or even wind — that’s going to fix everything.”

Blittersdorf has searched for new answers most of his life. His autobiography has two central themes that intertwine to form a third. The first is the invisible flow of electrons through copper that powers every aspect of daily life. The second is the wind, the fast scuff of air molecules from place to place. The third is the confluence of the first two, the quest to find the elusive point where the air itself is harnessed and becomes an endless wellspring of electricity.

He grew up in Pittsford, Vermont within sight of Grandpa’s Knob, the world’s first large windmill connected directly to the power grid. The plant didn’t last long, throwing a blade and closing in 1944, but his parents told stories and took him up to the ruins, laying the foundation for a lifetime interest. When the 1973 oil shock hit, cruelly coinciding with Blittersdorf’s sixteenth birthday and crisp new driver’s license, the young man with a frustrated yen for the open road began thinking hard about conservation… and his old interest in wind power.

In those apocalyptic days, solar power and windmills and organic gasoline briefly dominated the national conversation, which then moved on to disco when pump prices dropped. But Blittersdorf remained dedicated to wind and renewable energy, taking the cause to UVM, where he built a small wind turbine as his senior mechanical engineering project. After graduation, he started NRG in the spare bedroom of his and Jan’s rented Bristol house. “I wanted to do something in wind, and we were broke and didn’t have anything to lose,” he remembers.

Her income supported them for years as David slowly built a business out of the air. After years of constant struggle and infrequent salaries, NRG has developed an industry-leading suite of wind monitoring equipment. This niche has proven lucrative, mostly because of simple physics. “If you double the wind speed, you get eight times the energy,” he explains. So before lending the millions necessary to fund a wind plant, banks demand exhaustive assessment of a property’s wind potential, an assessment that NRG can facilitate better than anyone else in the world. So as wind power has grown, so has the business, with sales increasing tenfold over the last ten years.

Jan Blittersdorf, the “woodpecker” to David’s “hummingbird” as he puts it, has played a key role in the business’s success. She’s worked full-time at the firm since 1987, her management rigor complementing his entrepreneurial flights of fancy. Now, with the shaky years long past, the challenge facing NRG may be growing too large. “We want to keep things fun,” she says.

And the firm has another, more serious problem, at least for David and Jan. Even though the U.S. burns through more oil than any other country in the world, most of their customers are overseas. This doesn’t show up in the balance sheet, but the Blittersdorfs’ promotion of wind is a matter of conviction, not cash.

The stark reality of fossil fuels is this: We depend on them totally for the trappings of modernity and yet, every turn of the ignition, every flip of the switch, our supply dwindles. Oil, coal, uranium — when we burn and pulverize and split them, and cough through all the side effects of those messy operations, we use them. And when we use them, they’re gone.

Blittersdorf’s argument isn’t that we are going to run out of oil any time soon, even though no one is making any more of it. There’s probably enough oil for another century, he allows, but what then? And how many wars and poisoned forests and gas lines will we have to endure for our oil dependence? Skeptics say we’re finding more oil all the time, and it’s cheaper and cleaner than ever.

“The price doesn’t reflect the real cost of oil,” Blittersdorf counters. “External costs for military protection of the Middle East supply, oil industry subsidies, foreign loans, pollution control and healthcare make the real price three to five times higher.”

Convinced that oil addiction is wrong, Blittersdorf has worked hard to ensure that his family’s tiny patch of Vermont uses as little foreign crude as possible. A sleek gray wind turbine towers eighty feet above his Charlotte home, which is packed with energy generating and conservation equipment in every possible flavor. But the Blittersdorf colonial is not a mud-thatch hippie palace made of recycled bottles and overripe hay bales. It is, well, a Charlotte home, with 3,000 square feet filled with modern conveniences powered, mostly, by a big array of solar photo voltaic panels and the windmill. On blustery days, his electric meter actually spins backwards, as his home pumps energy back into the grid.

And yes, despite Vice President Cheney’s famous dismissal of conservation as a largely useless “private virtue,” the Blittersdorfs save where they can — the family car is a Toyota Prius that gets fifty miles to the gallon. But their lifestyle is not about denial. “We wanted to show people that you could live well, and still minimize your use of non-renewable energy,” Blittersdorf says.

The family has invested tens of thousands of dollars in the effort, and that’s before the wood-pellet furnace he’s eyeing goes in. The expense is more, probably, than they’ll recoup even in thirty years of lowered electricity bills. Blittersdorf says a few of his neighbors have pounced on that, questioning his investment savvy. In response, he gestures toward the kitchen’s granite countertops. “Those are an investment?” he asks. “There’s more to life than investments.”

And yet, the viability of alternative energy in the United States depends on new investment. Solar and wind power have made huge gains in efficiency and cost over the past twenty years, but they lag behind oil on both counts. The result is a vicious paradox: Until the prices of wind turbines and solar panels drop, the demand from individuals and power companies will likely stay low; but with little demand, companies won’t push to develop cheaper and better ways of tapping the wind and sun.

Tax credits and incentives can boost demand, but the political will for them is limited. Nonetheless, Blittersdorf remains optimistic as he enjoys a perk of success: the opportunity to put his money where his mouth is. NRG now offers its employees cash to buy renewable energy equipment. Blittersdorf hopes that state and federal governments follow suit before the next energy crisis, helping entrepreneurs who are working to create a future where electricity flows as freely and endlessly as wind.

“The incentives aren’t in the right places for people to do the right things about energy,” he says. “This isn’t about bouncing from crisis to crisis and making people feel guilty; it’s about making real changes for ourselves and our kids before it’s too late.” VQ

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