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Chasing the Sun


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  • | 10:02 a.m. August 20, 2010
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REVIEW SUMMARY
Company. Gulf City Solar
Industry. Solar energy
Key. If it takes longer than a year and a half to recoup your money from solar technology, it's not economically feasible.



Don't ask Hans Holzmann or William Heckenstaller to install solar power in your home.


They'll say you either have too much money or you're a “green freak,” because it doesn't make any financial sense today.


That may like strange advice coming from two German engineers whose business is harnessing solar energy. But the two men know that their Bonita Springs-based company, Gulf City Solar, won't be successful unless the products they develop can pay for themselves in one year and a half or less and without government subsidies.


“We're sitting here on a gold mine,” Holzmann says. “You know why? People don't believe us.”


Indeed, despite decades of research, solar power hasn't proven to be a less-costly alternative to fossil or nuclear fuels. Millions of dollars of government subsidies since the Jimmy Carter era have been wasted on inefficient solar technologies, causing companies that built their business plans on those handouts to fail when the money inevitably ran out.


Despite its history of failed technologies, government continues to throw money at subsidies that make little sense. Government officials blinded by the sun could learn something from Holzmann and Heckenstaller. “We focus only on applications and products that save you money,” Holzmann says.


While solar companies hooked on subsidies target homeowners with heavy glass panels that take years to pay for themselves in savings, Gulf City Solar started by designing a light plastic mat that can power a golf cart. They formed their company in 2008 and Holzmann says he expects sales next year to reach $1.5 million.


Holzmann says there are 260,000 golf carts in Florida. “They all pay a lot to FPL,” he says, referring to the Florida utility. The pair is targeting golf clubs to install solar-power mats on fleets of golf carts, which they say pay for themselves in less than a year and a half because they consume so much power when they're recharged by conventional plug-in power.


Their technology won't be limited to golf carts. Another opportunity is a solar-powered pond aeration system, which costs one-third of the price of conventional systems. Electric wheelchairs and a small generator are also in development. “It's really open-ended,” says Heckenstaller.


The firm's chairman, William Douglas, a former executive with firms such as Gillette and Nabisco, is the fundraiser for the group. None of the partners says exactly how much money they've spent so far to start the company, but Holzmann says it could ultimately be a $5 million investment.



Military know-how


Heckenstaller was born and raised in Munich, Germany, graduating with an engineering degree that soon landed him sought-after jobs with Hewlett Packard and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the dawn of the computer age.


The young German was lured to South Africa in 1975, where he developed military technology such as conductive paste made of gold extracted from mounds of sand dug from the mine pits there. In 1991, shortly after the end of apartheid, Heckenstaller sold his patents to South African companies such as Anglovaal and U.S. companies such as IBM.


That year, he retired to Breckenridge, Colo., where he says he became a “ski bum” for two years and bought a door-manufacturing company, selling that in 1998. Meanwhile, a German friend hired him to build out a shutter factory in Lehigh Acres near Fort Myers and Heckenstaller decided to move to nearby Bonita Springs in 2001.


Holzmann had a similar global circuitous path to the Gulf Coast. Born and raised in Austria, the electrical engineer moved to Canada in 1968 with $200 in his pocket. He drove a taxicab in Toronto before earning dual degrees in computers and philosophy from the University of Toronto in 1971.


After traveling throughout South America for four years, Holzmann worked for and started computer companies in the U.S., Europe and Asia for nearly 30 years. In between technology marketing and sales stints, Holzmann indulged in his passion for wine and when he moved to Bonita Springs in 2001, he took a job as wine director for Bonita Bay Group, a luxury residential development company.


After Bonita Bay Group's residential sales started plummeting a few years ago, Holzmann left the developer and met Heckenstaller.



Sun country


Initially Holzmann wasn't too impressed with solar technology. Even in Europe, where solar has a longer track record than in the U.S., cuts in government subsidies mean solar power has lost its shine.


But Holzmann says he immediately was drawn to Heckenstaller's innovative use of a silicon film and flexible solar panels. The latter had mined his military connections to cobble together what looks like a plastic carpet. “What do the military use for this?” Heckenstaller wondered. “I worked on the first solar panel 30 years ago.”


While he won't go into the specifics of how he acquired or assembled the technology, Heckenstaller says a golf cart can run a full day on a single charge. What's more, the plastic panel is tough to break and is lighter than glass-made competitors. When it's placed on top of a golf cart with adhesive, the panel even charges when it's cloudy.


Golf clubs stretched for cash don't have to pay the cost of the solar panels up front. Holzmann says Gulf City Solar is working with a leasing finance company so that the cost can be spread out as the clubs save on power.


The pair is about to begin sales after two years of engineering and expect revenues of $1.5 million next year. They're tucked away in a small office in Bonita Springs with a warehouse in the back, but both men envision opening up a larger facility for assembly and research.


“We only do products that work economically,” Holzmann says. “Or power where nothing else will.”


For example, Holzmann wheels a generator the size of a car battery connected by a cord to a carpet of solar panels. The generator will power a computer and several other small electric devices such as a fan or a light.


A pond aeration system is in the works too. These devices operate continuously in countless still-water retention ponds in communities around Florida. Holzmann says his company is discussing with the city of Bonita Springs to install them in the town ponds.


Holzmann and Heckenstaller can't resist talking about solar energy and Florida's sunny weather with almost political zeal. “If we can't make solar the most exciting business...” Holzmann trails off. “This is the most exciting time.”

 

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