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Who knew that a back-to-the-lander gentleman hunkered down in hippy little Redway for the past 30 years would end up as a feature profile in a major business magazine headquartered at 7 World Trade Center, New York, N.Y.? For being among the top 5,000 U.S.-based entrepreneurs raking in the dough the fastest?

The September 2007 issue ofInc. Magazine names David Katz as No. 312 in the magazine's "Inc. 5,000," its list of businesses at "the top of the entrepreneurial economy." The profile on Katz notes that his business, Alternative Energy Engineering (AEE) Solar, grew 846 percent between 2003 and 2006, from $3 million in revenue in 2003 to $28.2 million in 2006.

You likely know of Katz. He's the electrical engineer/former VW auto parts dealer who moved to the Southern Humboldt hills from Alameda in the late 1970s, along with lots of other city refugees, ditching his day job with the Defense Department for the simpler life. Yes, he was "a lefty protester kinda guy," he told the Journal in an article in 2001 ("Humboldt Unplugged," Feb. 22, 2001), "definitely anti-government, anti-corporation." But he said his venture into solar power was less conscience-driven — at least at the time — and more a business-minded instinct to meet a demand in his adopted community. Many were living off the grid, and they started asking Katz for help hooking extra batteries to their cars that could then be charged and used to supply electricity to their homes. And even as of 2001, Katz noted in the article, there were probably "about 5,000 people off the grid in Southern Humboldt" and that "it has a lot to do with marijuana."

That last bit didn't make it into the Inc. article, actually. Some publications rise above.

Katz told Inc.that he got into selling solar panels after attending a consumer electronics show in Las Vegas in 1980. "I bought 100 and went back to northern California and sold them all in a couple of days," he said. "Now you didn't have to have your car. For a couple thousand dollars, you could have lights and music in your house."

In 1981, he started putting out a catalog. (It's up to 192 pages now.) And over the next 20 years he developed a sales department; hired a team of experienced solar panel and other alternative energy troubleshooters and installers; hooked up with numerous manufacturers, partners and dealers; sold the business; bought back the business; and then, in 2005, sold 80 percent of AEE to an investor, Mainstream Energy.

"That helped with money, of course," Katz told Inc., "but we've also benefited from their influence with vendors. They had a good view of the big picture, and that's given me the freedom and the idea that we had to grow."

Now AEE is strictly a wholesale distributor, with 36 employees — many living off the grid — spread among a Canadian division and offices in California, Utah and Colorado, and customers all over the globe. Katz mentioned in the 2001 Journal article that much of his business comes from Third World countries. The Inc.article attributes much of AEE's explosive growth to a rising demand for solar energy, fueled by incentives — "especially in California, where net-metering laws and rebates have created a huge market for equipment that connects residential solar electric systems to the municipal grid."


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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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