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Turning a new Leaf: Montrose firm develops more efficient solar systems

BrightLeaf Power has developed modules that concentrate sunlight to more efficiently generate electricity and heat water. According to the Montrose company, the combination makes the modules five times more efficient than flat photovoltaic panels. (Photo courtesy BrightLeaf Power).

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Doug Kiesewetter expects his company to deliver three solar energy systems by the end of this year, the beginning of what he envisions as rapid growth for the Western Colorado venture.

In the process, Kiesewetter said BrightLeaf Power also will deliver on the promise of more efficient systems that produce both electricity and hot water while offering economical operation even without tax incentives. That’s not to mention the additional promise of creating quality jobs in an area still suffering from underemployment.

Kiesewetter serves as president and chief executive officer of BrightLeaf Power, a Montrose company he founded five years ago. A self-described serial entrepreneur who’s started a dozen ventures, Kiesewetter said he launched BrightLeaf Power for two reasons: to develop more efficient solar systems and create jobs in Montrose.

Kiesewetter said he’s long used a solar system at his home, but never was impressed by flat photovoltaic solar panels. “I didn’t like what I saw in the flat panel solar world.” Flat photovoltaic panels are only 13 percent to 14 percent efficient, he said. That means more than 85 percent of the raw material — sunlight — goes to waste BrightLeaf developed a solar system that uses what’s called shaped beam technology to concentrate sunlight to generate electricity and heat water. Collectors focus the equivalent of the energy from 1,000 suns — a burst as intense as rocket exhaust, Kiesewetter said.

As a result, the modules are 35 percent efficient in generating electricity and 45 percent efficient in producing heat, he said. “That makes all the difference in the world.”

The modules are especially well-suited for facilities that require both electricity and hot water — everything from dairy farms, factories and mining operations to college dormitories, health clubs and hotels, he said. The modules also can be used to power water purification and bottling operations — whether in developing nations or luxury resorts.

While Kiesewetter expects his customers to take advantage of tax incentives for installing solar systems, he believes the Brightleaf systems are efficient enough to make economical sense without subsidies.

There’s additional potential in connecting BrightLeaf modules to geothermal systems that store heat underground in the summer for use in the winter, Kiesewetter said. The ability to store and use heat on a seasonal basis greatly expands the geographic market for the systems, he added. “That, actually, is an intriguing possibility.”

The first three Brightleaf systems are scheduled for installation before the end of the year at an elementary school in Cedaredge, a municipal facility in Montrose and a hotel in Phoenix. Additional installations are planned for early next year at a college dormitory in Canada and resort hotels in Hawaii, he said.

Kiesewetter expects sales for 2012 to come in between $3 million and $4 million, but then grow by a factor of 10 to $40 million in  2013 and then more than double in 2014 to $96 million.

Most of the fabrication and assembly will occur at the Brightleaf factory in Montrose, he said.

While the company currently employs about 50 people, Kiesewetter expects staffing to double by early next year and then further increase to 400 to 500, depending on sales.

That would substantially help in creating new jobs in Montrose County and addressing underemployment in an area that otherwise offers a high quality of life, Kiesewetter said. “I feel like it’s heaven on earth in most regards except for employment.”

If his projections for rapid growth hold true, Kiesewetter said he’d eventually like to open additional manufacturing facilities elsewhere in Western Colorado.

With the Brightleaf solar systems are currently custom built for every installation, Kiesewetter said he expects construction to become more standardized.

The goal, he said, is to eventually sell standardized units that could be installed without technical expertise — especially for residential use. That attribute also could prove useful in using the systems to generate power and purify water in underdeveloped counties, he said.

While Brightleaf is only now delivering its first solar systems, Kiesewetter remains optimistic the company soon will deliver on the promises of more efficient systems and more jobs.

In anything, he said he’s looking forward to coping with the challenges associated with managing a rapidly growing venture. “It’s a high-class problem to have.”

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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