Lessons From a Life in Renewable Energy

David Blittersdorf, CEO AllEarth Renewables, Addresses the University of Vermont Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources Class of 2022

Class of 2022,

I’m honored to be celebrating your graduation with you from UVM – as you embark on your next journey.

I remember being in your shoes. It was 1981 and I had no idea what direction my life would take, only that I wanted to be in wind energy.

As it turns out, I’m fortunate to be a lifelong entrepreneur who was stubborn enough to pursue my dream. I made a career in renewable energy.

Civilization is now facing a major shift in energy generation and its use.

Being an entrepreneur began with my roots in Vermont. My parents were both self-employed. Mom and her own real estate sales company, and Dad ran a small printing business. They were only able to pay for two years of college. After two years at Wentworth in Boston, I returned to Vermont 44 years ago to get my Bachelors Degree.

Life really is a journey, and today, I have three stories that helped shape my life — some ups and downs and many lessons I hope might inspire you.

The first story is about the big picture of modern energy use.

It was my Mom and Dad that inspired me. When I was 12 years old, Dad took me to the top of a nearby Vermont mountain to see the foundations of the world’s first large wind turbine that in 1945 generated electricity to the grid. I got hooked – I began to dream about renewable energy. I wanted to make a career in wind power. I wanted to be part of a different energy future.

Four years later as we suffered empty gas pumps during the 1973 Arab oil embargo, I realized firsthand that our modern world was entirely dependent on fossil energy to function.

The future I wanted was not one of polluting fossil fuels and dangerous nuclear power. I didn’t know it at the time, but fossil fuels are finite, a one-time gift, our one-time prize.

Think about it. We burn fossil fuels by the ton and by the barrel without thinking. In two short centuries, we extracted fossil fuels at a rate that Earth spent millions of years to create.

Our modern society will deplete these finite fossil fuels in this century, and they are not replaceable and they are radically changing our environment. We’ve left you with a terrible problem. I have to stand here today and apologize to you, our next generation, for our lack of knowledge, the prudence and the foresight in creating this dilemma. And now I look to you to move quickly.

Energy is the defining issue of our times. Two things: we must switch now to renewable energy and use a lot less energy. Otherwise we’ll fail as a civilization. Being green is a great start, but our times call for lifestyle and policy changes on a grand scale that go beyond just recycling, or driving a Tesla.

My second story is about work success, passion and loss.

I started my first company, NRG Systems, one year after finishing my Engineering degree here at UVM. I was designing and building instruments that measured the wind for the new wind farms in California.

People told me I was crazy. They said, “Go work for another company for a decade, learn from that, and then set out on your own.” I was either too foolish or too stubborn to listen. So I used credit cards and bank loans at 20 percent interest to bootstrap the business.

The first years were tough. To put food on the table I almost quit work to run a chairlift at Sugarbush, but I loved what I was doing, so I tightened my belt and pushed forward. I knew I could make my business work. I didn’t have much to lose – I wasn’t married, had no kids, and was working out of a rented house.

By 2004, now married with children, I’d grown NRG into the leading wind measurement company in the world. After building a LEED-certified corporate headquarters in 2004, I stepped down as CEO to concentrate on engineering new products, the part of the business I loved most. My wife and I decided that she would become CEO.

And here is where I experienced loss.

I devoted my energy to innovating a residential-scale wind turbine – trying to fulfill my life-long passion to create a marketable wind turbine of my own. Within a few years, however, our visions of the future business diverged, and so did our marriage.

I moved out of the dream buildings we had built in 2008. I was now out of the company I’d spent two decades building. I felt like a failure. I feared that I would become a “one trick pony,” not able to innovate and grow another company.

The lesson here.

Looking back, bad things happen, and in some cases, I caused bad things to happen.

So don’t be surprised when things don’t turn out well. Learn from your mistakes. Find the strength in yourself and be resilient.

My third story is about accepting change.

We won’t volunteer for change. Losing the business I had put my heart and soul into was severely depressing. I felt lost at times, but even amidst those feelings of despair, I continued forward.

While I was successful developing a great small wind turbine, the market potential disappeared, just as solar panels dropped to one quarter of their price.

More change. Gone went the potential market for residential wind, to the now lower-cost and easier-to-build solar.

After losing millions of dollars with the wind turbine, I was running a company that was losing a quarter of a million dollars a month. I pivoted, renamed my company AllEarth Renewables and designed and put into production the AllEarth solar tracker in a matter of months.

I now lead a company in a rapidly growing industry that is helping to change how we produce clean energy. Losing my first company was probably the best thing that could ever have happened to me. I was able to start over, with the freedom to be more creative, and build anew. This has been true not just in my work but in my personal relationships with others, with a special woman and with myself.

Do not be afraid of failure or change – though it may be painful, change will offer you opportunities to reexamine what is more important to you, and will give you the necessary push to rearrange your life to better fit your goals.

Success and well-being comes from pursuing your dreams, being committed to continuous learning, and putting in the time doing what you love, while being motivated by passion. Our world desperately needs change, and you are just the ones to shake things up.

We’ve left you a planet and an economy in shambles – we’ve robbed you of finite resources and handed you the bill. Your opportunity is to turn all that around, using your hands, your head, and your heart – your considerable talents, your ingenuity, your passions, and your UVM education.

So, be bold, go forth, and change the world. Make it yours.

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