December 2, 2021

Living Solar: Tommy Caldwell on Reducing your Impact

Among the brands associated with professional outdoor athletes, it is rare to find a renewable energy contractor in the list of logos. But, for Colorado natives Tommy Caldwell and Kyle Judson, this alignment makes perfect sense and paves the way for a better tomorrow.

Professional rock climber Tommy Caldwell grew up on the Front Range, joining his father, a mountain guide for the Colorado Mountain School, on several climbing, skiing, and outdoor adventures throughout the state and other parts of the world. Now living his dad’s “dream life,” Tommy has increased his focus on environmental advocacy and protecting the mountain playground that he and his family call home.

Kyle Judson, founder and co-owner of Elevated Independent Energy, was raised playing in those same mountains and spent years honing his skills as a climbing and backcountry ski guide. Unlike Tommy, Kyle swore he’d never follow in his father’s footsteps (a 35-year master electrician), but after spending some time as a tradesman, Kyle saw an opportunity to improve the field. As he learned more about renewable energy sources and gained experience working for some of the top players in the industry, it was clear to Kyle that solar was the answer to protecting the wild spaces that defined so much of his life.

Tommy Caldwell and Elevated founder and co-owner, Kyle Judson during interview.

No strangers to epic adventures, these two dedicated mountain men have teamed up for another kind of exciting endeavor, the journey to solar. We caught up with Tommy and Kyle (at the top of the second Flatiron) to learn more about what it takes to make the switch:

Starting at the core, why now? What prompted your expanded interest in solar beyond charging up your camera on the face of El Capitan and keeping the fridge in your van cold?

TOMMY:  My time in the mountains first and foremost. On one hand, you're enjoying them, but you also fall in love, which makes it so that you're seeing the changes year after year. You're seeing the receding glaciers, you're seeing the forest fires come through, and it seems to match up with what science is saying these days.

I had a conversation with Yvon Chouinard a few years ago where I asked him a question like, what do you think is the biggest threat to the world? He responded that one of the largest vulnerabilities and dangers is a centralized grid, which really surprised me.

We weren't even talking about electricity or energy or anything. And so, decentralizing the grid and starting to change our energy consumption has been on my mind ever since. I figure if I can do that and it works on my house, then maybe I can start to advocate for other ways to do it throughout society, through things like community solar projects.

KYLE: We're all so reliant on that centralized system too. It's a monopoly, and it's generally fossil fuel driven. Some utilities are changing the way they do things, but it's like if everybody was getting their food from the same source, it's somewhat fragile.

Like Tommy [and myself], for people in love with the outdoors, whatever that may be – climbing, hiking, fishing – solar is a way to protect the places we are passionate about.

I founded Elevated (after a slew of life-changing events including getting caught in an avalanche) because I knew it was the best way to use my talents and focus to preserve the kind of Colorado I want to see, and our children deserve, in the future.

Kyle with his son Quinn enjoying the Colorado mountains Elevated is working to protect.

How does one embark on a journey to solar? What has that process looked like for you?

TOMMY:  I think whenever you start trying to find ways to do the right thing in terms of being good for the environment, it actually becomes really hard to figure out what those things are. You have to do a lot of research, and there are certain things that may do more harm than good. One thing that I was really interested in with Elevated is the SPAN Smart Electrical Panel they use to help you do that research. We decided to install the SPAN panel on my house early on in the process, way before we actually put a battery or solar panels on there. This is the part of the process we are in right now. With it, we can closely monitor my electrical usage, and I can get an understanding of how exactly I'm using my power.

I've started realizing how much power my lights take, how much power my dryer takes, all these different things in my house, and I’ve started to live slightly differently based on that knowledge. Once I've done that for a year or so, then I will really know how much electricity my house will use. We can just put the right amount of solar panels on there. We don't want to overdo it, and we don't want to under do it. Solar is great, but you want to get it right.

KYLE: That's an interesting question, and actually, it's kind of hard to answer as it is specific to each customer. Oftentimes, I think it starts in one of two ways, either a desire to be ecologically-minded or to save money.

The truth is that one kilowatt hour from solar energy is the cheapest source of energy on the planet right now.

It's cheaper than coal. It's cheaper than oil, natural gas, and wind. It's the most economically viable source of energy that we're dealing with. But really, to begin, it requires doing a little bit of research, finding out what incentives your local utility offers and seeing if your house is capable of having rooftop solar. If not, there's other options too, like you can buy renewable energy credits or buy into community solar projects.

You mentioned saving money, can you elaborate on the benefits of installing solar?

TOMMY:   There's lots of benefits, but the big one for me is you can reduce your reliance on the grid. You can reduce your carbon footprint. And this needs to happen, but in the long run, everyone can also save money. If you think about it, just producing energy through fossil fuels is such an inefficient system. That energy has to be forced underground for geologic time and then come out.

If you can just get it directly from the sun in real time, in the long run, that's going to be the right way.

KYLE: For me, similar to Tommy, the biggest benefit is that we are reducing the amount of energy that's being created at a remote power plant. We're not reliant on coal or gas-fired power plants for our power, so immediately we're reducing our impact on the environment.

Along with that, we're reducing our impact into the places we love, because eventually those resources have to come from somewhere.

Whether that's a coal mine or fracking or even hydro energy, which is more impactful than a lot of people think. Secondly, you've done away with your electric bill. You're no longer paying this oppressive monopoly that's just got a hold on your money every single month. You have ownership over your energy at that point.

That all sounds great, so why isn’t everyone instantly making the switch to solar?

TOMMY: Well, today one of the main barriers is that you have to have a credit score that allows you to get a solar loan. So, having enough resources to have a credit score is probably the major barrier. If you can get a loan, you can already even out your electrical bill, and in some cases, you can decrease it.

My biggest concern is just figuring out the right ways to live, the least impactful ways to live.

So solar is that, but I think it's not going to really work for the world until it becomes financially better than the other sources. And so, the more people that adopt them, the quicker that's going to happen.

KYLE: Figuring out the best financing option is the largest challenge, but a lot of states even have financing options. Colorado has a great finance option, actually. And, some people pull out a home equity loan or a home equity line of credit, so their payment is just rolled into their mortgage. But a reminder that you could do incremental stuff too. You don't have to offset 100% of your energy use. Even if you're just reducing your monthly bill by purchasing a system that'll offset 50%, that's still contributing to the end goal of reducing our impact. At Elevated, we work with our customers to customize the best possible solution to fit within their means.

But what if I don’t own a house? How can I reduce my reliance on the centralized grid?

TOMMY:  My first use of solar was prior to owning a home. It was in the backcountry, and you really figure out how to maximize the sun out there. You're constantly thinking about how you’re going to orient the solar panels in a way that's facing the sun while traveling through the mountains.

Tommy Caldwell climbing in Yosemite

Or even in my van, which has solar on it, I have to park it in the sun every day for a couple of hours. I think starting with this idea of always thinking about where the sun is and understanding how much energy you can produce from it is key. Then, let that dictate the amount of energy we need to use.

But, I often think about how we can change the solar landscape in general. Whether it's through community solar projects or buying RECs (renewable energy credits) from a virtual power plant or just ways to make it more accessible for people that either rent or don't have the financial means. If you're a renter and you want to get into solar, look into community solar projects if there's one in your area. If not, you could start one yourself. You don't have to be anybody special to get one going, any highly motivated person can do it.

KYLE: The RECs Tommy mentioned are great. Nowadays, a lot of utilities actually allow you to choose where your energy is coming from. So depending on where you live, they might have a wind farm offshore, and maybe that's where they source all their energy. Depending on the utility, they have different rates for each energy source. A lot of utilities also offer rebates for energy efficient appliances. If you rent, I recommend having a conversation with your landlord. Maybe you can split the credits at the end of the year or something like that.

For those who live in Colorado, how do we take the first step in partnering with Elevated like Tommy Caldwell?

KYLE: Just fill out the contact form on our website or email us at! Now through the end of the year, in conjunction with Tommy, SPAN, Folsom Custom Skis, Bluebird Backcountry, and Rocky Talkie, we are giving away several awesome items to those interested in learning more and starting their solar journey with Elevated.