Clean energy and solar power are more than just buzzwords these days. They’re likely the wave of the future, and few people know that better than Neal Verfuerth, founder of energybank in Manitowoc and one of the nation’s top inventors.
The award-winning company creates solid-state lighting, controls, internet of things integration and solar-powered technologies that are in one-third of all Fortune 500 companies. Energybank’s latest product is Fusion Solar-Powered LED, which uses the power of the sun to energize light fixtures in commercial and industrial applications.
The Fusion system reduces demand on the grid during peak times when electricity is most expensive by displacing demand for utility-generated energy with energy harvested directly from the sun.
A bit of a modern-day Thomas Edison, Verfuerth — an avowed tinkerer since his youth — is never afraid to question or experiment. With only a high school education, he began inventing 30 years ago, scoring his first patent in 2001; today, he holds more than 100 patents.
“I don’t have preconceived notions of what will work,” he says. “I just question ‘why?’ Intellect starts taking over for instincts and an unwillingness to try.”
Under Verfuerth’s direction, energybank has won four Product of the Year honors in the lighting category from the trade publication Plant Lighting, mostly recently in 2018 for its Fusion product. In 2019, Fusion, which is energy efficient, cost-effective, scalable and sustainable, received Insight’s Innovation Award in the Planet category.
Energy and lighting seemed to be Verfuerth’s destiny. “I had a different seasonal business and got into the energy and solar business and found myself being more interested in it,” he says, adding he still gets a kick out of “seeing how lights work.”
In 1996, Verfuerth founded Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc, which designs, manufactures, markets and manages the installation and maintenance of LED solid-state lighting systems. In 2007, Verfuerth took the company public. He left in 2012.
“I enjoyed building a business, being a good corporate citizen, a part of the fabric of society,” he says.
While he started energybank in 2015 and it now has a global reach, Verfuerth admits the company experienced plenty of failures along the way. “When I did my first fluorescents in 2001, people were calling me crazy,” Verfuerth says, before adding he’s illuminated more than 10,000 facilities worldwide.
Energybank, which employs 25, does all its metal fabrication in Manitowoc, while components are made overseas in China, Mexico and Israel.
While there are a lot of competitors in the clean, sustainable energy field, Verfuerth is proud of the quality of American technology. “There’s a lot out there that doesn’t last that long,” he says.
Verfuerth points out the promise he made to customers in the early 2000s about his products’ durability and that they still hold up today. “I think we’re going to see people wanting to buy American, but we need to be competitive globally,” he says.
“This is an industry that has been using the same technology for 130 years. The LED has been slow to see market adoption,” Verfuerth says, adding that “demand has been ramping up slowly. There’s a major transformation going on globally.”
As with LEDs, the public has also been somewhat slow to embrace solar power and clean energy.
“It’s still not gotten the traction you might think it would,” Verfuerth says. “I find that Americans are either panicking or complacent about energy.”