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Powered by the Earth
By Julie Hwang
(Top) Creative Energies co-founders and long-time NOLS Instructors Scott Kane (left) and Andy Tyson (right). (Inset) A solar panel installed by the company near Lander, Wyoming.

Attached to NOLS’ international headquarters in Lander, Wyoming, stands a squat, red-stoned building with huge picture glass windows. From the street, people passing by can easily see the eight dark solar panels on the slanted roof. The panels are tipped to the sun, which blazes down on this early March afternoon.

“It’s a good day for solar,” says Scott Kane, co-founder and part-owner of Creative Energies. He and his co-founding partner, Andy Tyson, have offered a tour of the Wyoming Outdoor Council (WOC) building’s alternative energy system, which they installed in 2002, then added onto a year later. Their third partner, Toby Schmidt, is busy preparing to update the NOLS Mexico power system to meet its expanding needs. All three are former NOLS Instructors, which is evident in their ease and care in explaining their business in renewable energy.

Britton Keeshan
Toby Schmidt, also a Creative Energies co-owner and NOLS Instructor, works on a wind turbine.

Creative Energies offers custom designed renewable energy systems for residences and businesses, as well as equipment and installation, one of the only full-service companies in a yet-immature field. They have completed projects all over Wyoming, as well as in Idaho and Montana, and their NOLS ties have also led to projects in Mexico and South America.

Each one of these jobs has been a unique combination of solar and wind power, utility grid connected systems, solar hot water and heating, water pumping and solar home design. Aside from balancing the rising energy prices around the country, renewable energy presents the only option for some remote homes, cabins and ranches, not to mention benefits to the environment.

Both Kane and Tyson, who worked for NOLS together in Patagonia, had been independently interested in alternative energy before starting Creative Energies over a cup of coffee in 2000. They sat down to discuss their partnership and ended up committing by retaining a client who stopped by to say hello. Schmidt, who also worked at NOLS Patagonia, joined the team in 2002, bringing to the business what Kane calls “mechanical brilliance.”

“We’re not just former NOLS employees,” says Kane. “We’ve been strongly influenced by NOLS. We may be doing something completely different, but we’re using the same philosophy.”

This philosophy comes through in every aspect of their company, from their business cards that conspicuously lack titles, to their easy tag-team explanations, and their conscious efforts to educate as much as provide renewable energy. Five percent of their profit goes toward public education for renewable energy, and their website contains a mass of well-researched information and links to other resources.

They all practice good NOLS communication techniques, believe in the same ideas about teamwork, and work hard to create an excellent end product. They work together like—well, a NOLS Instructor Team.             

The team is finding that Wyoming is the perfect spot to base their business. The state’s windy, blue-skied days make it an ideal place for people to harness nature’s energy. At WOC, where Creative Energies has installed solar panels, an inverter sends the electric meter spinning backwards through a system called “net metering.” This method gives consumers “energy credits” for power produced by renewable energy. The key, says Tyson, lies in efficiency: making enough power, but not too much.

Creative Energies works frequently with environmentally-minded clients who want to lead leave-no-trace lives. Every kilowatt hour of energy produced by a renewable energy source offsets one pound of coal burned in a power plant. That burned coal equals about two pounds of carbon dioxide, which multiplies quickly over 30 years. “For someone who’s environmentally minded, that makes a big difference,” Schmidt says. “As for us, we could make more money selling tires. But I know that I’m making a difference. I’m offsetting those pounds of coal.”

The team also designed solar power for the vegetable oil-powered NOLS Bus traveling the country spreading the word about NOLS and alternative energy. The 36-foot vehicle includes a bank of batteries for nighttime and cloudy days. This provides enough power for the bus to run computers, a projector, lights and the veggie-oil heating coil. “It’s a system where we hardly have to do anything except park in the sun,” says Winter Ramos, who works on the NOLS Bus. “That’s about the only maintenance.”

Tyson believes that the renewable energy field will continue to rise within in the next 50 years as the oil supply dwindles. “Alternative fuel is increasingly relevant,” he says. As the field grows, Creative Energies says they’ll stay on the front edge, constantly learning new technologies as they apply their own creative knowledge and skill to existing technology. They’ve also started exploring micro-hydroelectric power, often the most cost-effective renewable energy source.

But they can only do so much—part of the responsibility of owning a renewable energy system includes a certain deliberate living, at least as far as power goes. “It’s like a NOLS course,” Schmidt says. “You have to re-think your life.”

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