Published January 2001

Sun, wind propel
Xantrex forward

By Kathy Day
Herald Economy Writer

ARLINGTON — Ron Pitt says in his business, it’s time for a party when a nuclear plant is decommissioned.

That’s because it means interest increases in other sources of energy, and thus more business for his company.

Pitt is Vice President and General Manager of Xantrex Technology Inc., which makes devices to convert solar energy into electricity.

The company, started in 1984 as Trace Engineering, changed names in March after a series of mergers and acquisitions. Its technology enables home and business owners to hook up solar or wind power systems and make them work, Pitt said in a recent interview.

Better yet, those who are connected to a local utility and have Trace-brand devices may be able to watch their electric meter “spin backward,” he said.

Xantrex’s devices are used to power villages in Africa and Nepal, and hospitals and clinics in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Pitt said. In places where energy is expensive and in short supply and power outages are a daily occurrence, nonfuel-based power makes a lot of sense, he added.

Many homes or businesses with their own solar power systems can take advantage of “net metering,” he said.

That means if they are generating power and not using it all, they can sell it to the local utility. If they’re using more than they produce, they pay the utility for what they consume from the system.

“Most people don’t know about it in this region because power has been so inexpensive and the cost very steep for alternative sources,” Pitt said.

But now, with higher electricity costs, that could change, he said, adding that solar energy is most viable during long summer days when the systems can generate a lot of power and store it for later use.

To install a complete system to power a 2,000-square-foot house would run about $20,000, Pitt said.

Several Xantrex employees have installed the company’s equipment in their homes, and its founders lived “off-grid” — not connected to local power lines. A Snohomish County PUD spokeswoman said the utility has a handful of customers who take advantage of net metering, including one employee.

Dealers who install the equipment are trained to meet local standards and must get utility district approval to hook up to the system.

Xantrex has about 300 employees in five buildings adjacent to the Arlington airport. It also makes a backup power system that can be used during power failures to run all or part of a home or business, and systems for people who live and work beyond the reach of power lines.

Xantrex, which houses its worldwide headquarters and distribution center for renewable energy products in Arlington, “is pretty much it” in terms of its business niche, Pitt said.

He acknowledged it was a bit odd that the coastal Pacific Northwest, where there’s so little sun, “has become a center for solar electricity. ... It’s become a focal point, but it is a well-kept secret.”

By acquiring Heart Interface of Kent and Vancouver, British Columbia-based Xantrex — which gave its name to the 50-50 merger — the former Trace Engineering was able to consolidate the competition, he added.

The company also has divisions that make testing and measurement equipment, mobile power equipment for trucks and RVs, and consumer items like cigarette lighter converters used in cars that are sold in discount stores. In all, it has more than 700 employees at five facilities and produces about 500,000 devices a year as a corporation.

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