Renewable energy product manager, Van Meter Inc.
By Joe Nowlan
Ethan Wollbrink was still in high school when he first heard anyone refer to the electrical industry.
“I first heard about it through a family member who was an electrical contractor,” he explained, referring to an uncle. “I was still in high school and was helping him. I began working as an apprentice shortly after I graduated, spending nearly four years as a light commercial/agricultural electrician… Then I moved here to Van Meter.”
Wollbrink grew up on a farm in the west central part of Illinois.
“It was a small farm. We had about every domestic type of livestock that you could have on a farm,” he said.
Wollbrink did not begin his Van Meter career in the warehouse, where most new employees start out. Instead, due to his background working in electrical contracting, he started in inside sales.
“I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to start in an inside sales role,” Wollbrink said.
His current title at Van Meter is renewable energy product manager. In that capacity, it’s no surprise that Wollbrink works with a lot of solar energy.
“Van Meter’s role in the renewable energy piece is strictly in distribution. We warehouse it and specialize in it. We help design the system, and sell the project,” he said. “We also logistically supply all the equipment and occasionally assist with commissioning. [But] we do not have any role in the installation.”
However, Wollbrink helped install a solar array on his family’s farm.
“I did install my own [solar modules] and that was just because of my previous electrical experience in the trade,” he explained.
Solar has greatly increased in use, popularity and profitability, he said.
“It has been doing fantastic for our customers specifically, as well as regionally and nationally,” Wollbrink said. “Last year, utility-scale wind (27 percent) and solar power (20 percent) combined for 47 percent of new U.S. generation capacity. Based on this expansion, 11 states now generate more than 10 percent of their electricity from non-hydro renewable energy sources.”
He believes the solar product lines are now standing on their own. While tax incentives were driving projects exclusively, that is ceasing to be the case.
“It had been heavily incentive-driven in the past… But the technology itself is getting to an efficiency level and a price point where it really can stand on its own two feet now without being dependent on incentives or rebates or any dollars in return,” Wollbrink said.
Solar customers are savvier than ever and understand the cost savings involved.
“It used to be so cost prohibitive and back then the concern was the environmental impact. That was what was driving the projects,” he explained. “Now it is saving ‘green’ in your wallet. That’s what’s driving the projects today and everybody is usually interested in that.”
A bachelor, Wollbrink devotes his spare time to being an avid outdoorsman.
“I spend most of my time either hunting or fishing or boating. Just in the last year I got a house on the Lake of the Ozarks,” he said. “I spend a lot of time there on the water.”
Q. What advice would you have for other young professionals in the electrical industry?
A. In the electrical industry, or any industry, your hard work and dedication are the biggest things that you need to concentrate on. I can say specific to the electrical industry that the diverse number of specialties or categories that you need to learn can be a little overwhelming. Don’t concentrate on the quantity but just grab one in particular that really suits your interests and focus in on that.
That was one of the obstacles for me, personally, coming from carrying the tools of the trade and then getting involved in more facets of the electrical industry than I had known even existed. I was feeling as if I had to become an expert on all of them and that is when you can become useless to everybody.
Q. What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in this industry?
A. I get the greatest reward, regardless of what project it is, when I see an electrical project start from the needs stage. I’m fortunate in my role—and [electrical] is maybe more role-specific than any industry—but in my role now I get to see the cause of an inquiry. So when a company or a facility has a need and we design something that meets that need—I love being able to see it from the need all the way to its solution and when it has produced what we promised.
It’s very rewarding to be part of the design and deliver a solution that our customers and the end users are so excited about and happy with. To see that is when the project is completed, and that is extremely rewarding for me.
Joe Nowlan is a Boston-based freelance writer/editor and author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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