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Tech Tour Day Three: On The Northern Michigan Road

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Dustin Denkins and his Suburb Solar EasySun generator

Dustin Denkins and his Suburb Solar EasySun generator

TRAVERSE CITY — Getting from Sault Ste. Marie to the Traverse City area took a little longer than I thought it might because of a couple of really fascinating stops on Saturday, Day Three of the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s 2012 Spring Tech Tour.

First, over coffee and lunch in St. Ignace, it was Dustin Denkins and Suburb Solar, based in Manistique, roughly an hour west of the bridge on US-2 on the northern shores of Lake Michigan.

Denkins is a Manistique native and Michigan Technological University computer science graduate who worked for companies like AT&T and IBM in places like Seattle and Boston. But like those stories you so often hear from the folks who come back to Michigan, Denkins said, “My wife and I decided to raise kids, and there’s no better place to do that than the U.P.”

Denkins said he’d long had a passion for renewable energy, so that’s where he concentrated his efforts — creating Suburb Solar, and its slogan, “Making Solar Easy.”

Denkins isn’t after running your whole house on solar. Not yet, anyway. He just wants to replace that noisy, dangerous emergency generator you bought the last time the lights went out — or the one you bought for camping, the rig that makes everybody in the campground who’s actually there seeking peace and quiet shoot you a dirty look every time you fire it up.

Suburb Solar’s Easy Sun generator is a tilted solar panel about two and a half feet across, on an easy-rolling cart with wheels. Inside the triangular compartment beneath the solar panel are advanced batteries, a DC-to-AC inverter and power electronics. EasySun weighs about 100 pounds.

The rig produces a steady 1,500 watts with a surge output of 3,000 watts.

And unlike that gas generator, Easy Sun doesn’t require fuel (the fuel is free, sunlight), it has no moving parts other than the on-off switch, and it has no carbon monoxide or other toxic emissions.

“It’s silent, easy to use, safer, and can store the power in the batteries so you can take it where you need it, incuding inside your house,” Denkins said. “It kind of breaks the mold of what a generator is.”

At $1,999, it is more expensive than its most direct competitor, the 1,600-watt gasoline-powered Honda 2000i, which costs $1,799. But Easy Sun also qualifies for a 30 percent tax credit for residential solar, making the final cost $1,399.

Denkins said his company currently has three full-time employees, one part-timer, an intern, and “a lot of contractors,” building the Easy Sun. For now, the solar panels themselves come from China, still the world’s lowest-cost producer, but at least the unit is assembled in Michigan.

“We’ve been selling for a year now and we’ve seen steady growth every month,” Denkins said. “The market is really all across the nation.”

Check out these rigs for yourself at www.suburbsolar.com.

I also have to mention the restaurant where we lunched, Java Joe’s. The whole place is a wild throwback to the 1960s, complete with psychedelic art covering every inch of the exterior. The entire interior of the place — tables, walls, everywhere — is plastered with snapshots of patrons, except where there are displays of fancy teapots. A cheery concert video of Jimmy Buffett played inside during the interview, also contributing to the no-worries atmosphere. I went in wearing a Western Michigan University T-shirt, and was promptly served just excellent coffee in a WMU mug! And the Denver omelet was simply terrific, as was the sourdough bread. Highly recommended if you’re in the eastern U.P., open for breakfast and lunch only. The same guy owns a Mexican place down the street — called, what else, Jose’s — and I bet it’s excellent too.

More about Java Joe’s at http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g42671-d585059-Reviews-Java_Joe_s_Cafe-Saint_Ignace_Michigan.html.

From St. Ignace, I hit the bridge and turned off onto US-31 to visit Petoskey and my old friend Walter Breidenstein.

Breidenstein is a third-generation Michigan oil patch guy — his great uncle launched the Michigan Oil and Gas News, his father was in the oil business out of Mt. Pleasant. For the better part of a decade, he’s been chasing a dream of helping the oil industry get a little bit greener.

Whenever you drill for oil successfully, you also get natural gas. Now, sometimes that gas isn’t very high quality, and in places like Michigan, there usually isn’t a pipeline from the oil well to move it anywhere, so in many cases it’s simply flared off. That’s what’s burning like a torch at those oil rigs you see in many places in central and northern Michigan.

That bothers Walter Breidenstein, because it’s wasting a finite resource. And even if you can’t use this kind of natural gas for heating, it’s chock-full of irreplaceable hydrocarbons that can be turned into other stuff.

And that’s what Gas Technologies LLC is all about. Breidenstein has invented a relatively simple process to turn natural gas into methanol — wood alcohol — and formalin, also known as formaldehyde. The former can be burned as fuel as-is or used in other applications. The latter has many applications in the chemical industry, not just as a preservative of those frogs you had to dissect in high school.

Breidenstein has struggled for years to get financing to get his company off the ground. It seems the people who understand the oil industry don’t want to take the risk, and the people who understand risk don’t understand the oil industry. So he’s muddled along on the proverbial friends and family financing for years, putting together a working demonstration unit that fits in a utility trailer. He’s also taken office space in a former Petoskey plastics plant that’s now owned by a trucking company and is a de facto business incubator.

Breidenstein said he’s got a private equity company from England fundraising for him, but “it’s not an easy market for cleantech. We need about $2 million toget a commercial plant in the field. We’ve tried fundraising. We’re now trying to do it through early adopter customers. They are the ones who have the need, and the money.”

The technology is protected by half a dozen patents.

More at www.gastechno.com.

From Petoskey I headed down to the Traverse City area, where the Tech Tour will resume Monday after a day of rest (well, if you call putting Monday’s GLITR together rest) and Mother’s Day phone calls. Stay tuned as the tour continues!

Be sure to listen afternoons on WWJ Newsradio 950 for special reports on the GLITR 2012 Spring Tech Tour. And check out photos from the Tech Tour road at http://detroit.cbslocal.com/photo-galleries/2012/05/11/glitr-spring-tech-tour-2012/#photo-323016.

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