Minnesota family-owned company will build one-third of U.S. wind projects this year

·5 min read

Just off the main drag in Avon, a sleepy town in the middle of Stearns County, is a fourth-generation company steeped in experience building the infrastructure that powers America.

The company helped build the Great Northern Railroad a century ago, the state and interstate highway systems post-World War II, and now some of the largest and most complex energy projects on the continent.

David Henry Blattner formed the firm as a railway contractor company in 1907.

Now, great-grandson Scott Blattner, the company's president, has shepherded it through the most recent transition — shifting focus from D.H. Blattner & Sons to a new sister company, Blattner Energy, which has become a national leader as a renewable-energy contractor specializing in building wind farms, solar farms and energy storage infrastructure.

"We have finite resources — we're either going to build a railroad or we're going to build a wind farm," Blattner said. "You can be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none — and we just didn't want to do that."

The company now has more than 450 wind and solar projects to its name and is celebrating the milestone of producing 50,000 megawatts of renewable energy. This year, the company expects to build one-third of all U.S. wind projects.

"We're in the sweet spot for sure for the business to power forward," Blattner said. "I see it as an energy revolution. You can't look at it any other way."

'The right risk to take'The company, which continues to be majority-owned by Blattner family members, experienced a crisis two decades ago as the price of gold and copper fell and profits from mining and commodities dried up.

"We really got put on our knees in the late '90s and were considering whether we keep going with the business or not," Scott Blattner said. "There was a lot of humility it took to go through that."

Blattner, 61, said his executive team did a lot of soul-searching and kept coming back to wind energy. The company made the full transition to wind energy in the early 2000s.

"We believed one day [wind] would get to where it is today, but I don't know if we appreciated or understood the power of it back then," Blattner said.

Eliminating railroad work and focusing solely on utility-scale wind farms was a way to give the company a competitive advantage.

"That puts us more at risk for those markets, but we felt it was the right risk to take," Blattner said.

Only five major companies do this in the United States, said Peder Mewis, western regional policy manager at Clean Grid Alliance, an organization supporting renewable-energy developers and helping shape state energy policy.

In addition to Blattner, Minnesota's Mortenson Energy is among that select group.

"They're two of the biggest players in the industry," Mewis said. "They've done a really good job of carving out their space in this sphere."

In 2005, coal made up about 76% of the energy in the midcontinent energy grid that delivers power across 15 states and into Canada. By 2018, coal had dropped to 47% in the grid's portfolio, with wind and solar making up 8%.

By 2030, the organization predicts renewables will eclipse coal — with wind and solar making up 31% and coal just 27% of energy delivered across the grid.

And with renewable energy becoming as cost-effective or even more so than coal — even without subsidies — the only thing holding back wind and solar growth are constraints on the transmission system, Mewis said.

"We're hitting a brick wall where there just isn't enough room on the system to build more renewable-energy projects," he said.

Despite the current constraints, demand for renewable energy from citizens and companies is increasing.

"You look at corporate buyers — they are a significant piece of the marketplace because their employees and their customers want to see it," Blattner said.

Utility-scale solar gaining steamBlattner predicts the next two decades will be ripe for more growth, especially as the company makes another transition: shifting the majority of its work from wind to solar projects in response to market demand.

Blattner employs about 350 people at its Avon headquarters and, depending on the season, anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 employees on any given day at project sites across the country, according to Christine Huston, communications director at Blattner.

Huston said the privately owned company prefers not to share its annual revenue, but shared recent profiles of the business that show revenue growth during the company's transition to wind: from about $125 million in 2001, to $622 million in 2008 and $1.35 billion in 2015. Every project Blattner builds, Huston added, is within the $100 million range.

To celebrate the milestone of 50,000 megawatts of renewable energy, the company installed a solar-powered art installation on the Lake Wobegon Trail in Avon and contributed to funding for new festoon lights in downtown St. Cloud.

"It means a lot more than the number," Huston said of the milestone. "It certainly means the number of projects we've worked on, but that also means the number of communities we've worked in and given back to, whether it is through the creation of jobs for the construction [or] just providing more economic benefits, especially for the rural communities, because that's where a lot of our projects are built."

Blattner started working at project sites at the age of 12, and they feel like home to him.

"That's where my heart is — it's with working with the people in the field. It's the camaraderie," he said. "I think there's something about building something and standing back and saying, 'We accomplished that.' That's always very satisfying to me."

The company now employs some in the fifth generation of Blattners.

"It's kind of a bittersweet time for us because we just never imagined that we'd put a business model together that would have this kind of energy and power," he said. "It's a great testament to the people of our organization."