Pennsylvania is an increasingly hospitable place for green businesses — especially those tapping into the state’s legacy of energy and manufacturing prowess. Meet three innovative companies solving simple sustainability problems with creativity and entreprenuerial spirit.
When you’re in the wind energy business, hilly Pennsylvania might not be your first choice.
“We actually looked across the country for places to start the company,” says Ron Gdovic, who founded WindStax in 2011 in Apollo, Westmoreland County, before moving to Pittsburgh’s Strip District last year. He chose to stay in the state, he says, because “we felt very confident in the manufacturing resources and the assistance that would be available to start a high-growth company in green energy.”
“We like to say we have good manufacturing karma,” he continues — the company currently occupies the first space used by the Aluminum Company of America; later Alcoa. “We like the nitty-gritty manufacturing history of the Strip District.”
WindStax makes vertical axis wind turbines for the small-wind industry. “Big-wind” turbines are for utility companies, while small-wind turbines can power individual homes and businesses. WindStax devices can store several days worth of electricity, even when there is no wind, and need as little as a three-mile-per-hour breeze, coming from any direction, to begin operating. They are portable, quiet and safe for passing wildlife. According to Gdovic, the company’s smallest unit — which is 20-feet tall — can offset 10 to 50 percent of the average home’s power consumption.
In March, Neighbors in the Strip, the local community development group, installed a WindStax unit on the roof of the Pittsburgh Public Market. There is also a WindStax at the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in Ligonier as part of its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning center — students are constructing the wind turbine’s foundation and electrical connections.
Though WindStax has sold units in other states, Gdovic is concentrating on the regional market for now, bringing local components together in the company’s 10,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.
“Our biggest challenge is expanding our manufacturing capacity,” he says. “We really can’t keep up with demand. When I started this company, my mission was that WindStax would be ubiquitous around the world in the small-wind area. We’re going to do what we can to see that vision through.”
Filling the gaps
Jim Melesky’s inspiration for ESS Energy Products came right in his own home. His house has a pull-down ladder for attic access and he wondered how to insulate that breach in his ceiling.
Though Melesky has an engineering background — he’s a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — “I looked at it and made the same mistake most homeowners do,” he recalls. He applied weather stripping, and couldn’t figure out why the room with the attic-access ladder was still colder in the winter and warmer in the summer than the rest of the house.
The determined DIYer then headed to his local big-box hardware store.
“‘There’s nothing out there,'” he remembers being told. “‘But if you ever come up with something, you can sell millions of them.'”
So in 2002 he founded ESS in Paoli, northwest of Philadelphia. The company’s first product was the Energy Guardian which insulates and seals attic pull-down ladders. The product has been recognized by both Fine Home Building magazine and This Old House.
“We are the classic entrepreneur that didn’t know any better — that this is a big task,” says Melesky of starting his own small business. “And it wasn’t a straight shot.”
The first prototype helped him save a lot of money on his own home’s energy bills, in both summer and winter. He gave one to a neighbor who had similar results. But convincing home builders and home product distributors was not always easy.
“We now have five patents,” he says. “We’ve expanded the product line for any kind of attic access,” including push-up panels without ladders, built-in stairways and side-wall panels. “Each of them creates a major breach in your thermal barrier,” he notes. Not only does cold enter and heat escape in the winter — and vice versa for air-conditioned homes in the summer — but unprotected attic access “creates air movement in the wrong direction all-year round.” If you have insulation in your attic, “all the particles that you’re supposed to be protected against are flowing into your living unit.”
Today, the Energy Guardian is available at some Lowe’s outlets, several New Jersey locations, and through the Mark Group in Philadelphia, Knoebel Lumber in Elysburg, Musser Home Builders in Dillsburg and Blevins Inc. in Harrisburg, as well as through the ESS website. The company has its own manufacturing plant, using many pre-cut materials, and uses Baker Industries, a private nonprofit, for its employment needs. Baker employs people with physical or mental limitations, as well as those with previous minor legal tangles that pose a problem on job applications.
“We’re very proud to work with them,” says Melesky.
“I think there’s great opportunity here” for small Pennsylvania businesses, he adds. The still-evolving state energy codes for new and renovated houses are “a lot to keep up with,” but Melesky has been working with code officials, even holding training sessions on “the science of the building process and why the code is so important.”
Now ESS is looking to expand its product line again, creating seals for recessed lighting, fireplaces and other leaky home locations. The company remains a family business with six employees, including Melesky’s two sons.
“They are at least as enthusiastic as I am,” he says. “It was one of those fanciful ideas when I started, but when you get into it, you really develop religion on it. I’m not a kid anymore, and I’d like this to be my swan song.”
When Eric P. Casteel heard about Marcellus Shale drilling sites running generators all night to power their guard shacks, he figured they might need a cheaper, greener energy source. Casteel founded SolarCast in Pittsburgh in 2011 to develop portable, renewable energy products.
“They were spending a lot of money on fuel,” says Casteel of these drilling companies. “Something needed to be done. And they were looking for something that was mobile. We thought there was a business here.”
SolarCast built its mobile generator prototype that year, then spent another year testing it. Today, the Mobile Power Platform has five models generating one to 32 kilowatts per hour, all designed to run 24/7. All are portable, too, though the largest sits on a 53-foot semi-trailer with 120 solar panels, 128 batteries and two sets of wind turbines. It can also be used for outdoor events that need a constant, unfailing power source. According to Casteel, it even works for location movie shoots, since it’s so quiet.
SolarCast uses only U.S. suppliers for everything except the smallest wind turbine. They also employ their own designs and contract with local manufacturers and installers (including Casteel’s family business, WRCasteel in nearby Hopwood, Fayette County — though Casteel himself is not an owner).
“It has enabled us to move into new regions very quickly,” says Casteel. “It’s a model that allows us to go pretty much anywhere in the country that we have to. But probably our biggest interest right now is coming from outside the United States.”
SolarCast’s Mobile Power Platform is an off-grid generator. Domestic grids are too stable to make the U.S. a prime market, so the company is looking abroad to enterprises and organizations that run Indian cell towers or African hospitals — places that need reliable power but currently don’t have access. Those platforms will still be designed domestically and use U.S. components, but will be manufactured in the country of install. SolarCast already has a partner in Dubai for Middle Eastern manufacturing, is talking to a potential partner in Australia and is currently looking for South American partners.
Still, Casteel is happy to be headquartered in the Commonwealth.
“Pennsylvania is great for doing business,” he says. “I’ve gotten a lot of help from my local state representatives and U.S. representatives as well. And Pennsylvania has a trade program that has really helped out.”
SolarCast has been working with state’s Department of Community and Economic Development since September.
“I’m planning on a couple of different trips to a couple parts of the world, and they’re helping to sponsor them and paying for part of my expenses,” explains Casteel. He is also a member of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, which aided his earliest work on SolarCast.
“We’re looking at selling about 100 of our units this year,” he says, though they have a long way to go — the company has shipped only 10 so far. The longterm goal is to build and sell 500 units a year.
“We expect to get there in about three years,” says Casteel.