The power of solar
By Henry Howard
Chicago native Colleen Clarke feels at home in the mountains in Colorado.
Clarke is a former avid runner who turned to high-altitude hiking after knee rehabilitation. She also works in the solar industry, “a passion that I found several years ago while making a career change. I wanted to make a different type of impact with my skill set in an industry that I feel like is just starting to evolve more and more into the mainstream, especially in America.”
While she may be somewhat atypical of the subjects I profile, this year I wanted to turn more attention to issues revolving around the environment, conservation and alternative forms of energy as well as the people driving change. Clarke brought a lot of her own energy to the conversation, as well as great information about the power of solar energy, her athletic journey and more.
Here is a question-and-answer from our interview toward the end of 2023. It has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Question: Let's start out with running. Tell me about your running background, how it started, and where it took you until an injury derailed that.
Answer: My intro to running was actually snowshoe racing. That's kind of a theme of my life, let's just go the weirdest, most aggressive possible route into things. So I started snowshoe racing in the early 2000s. I did junior high and high school track and cross country. But my true intro to running, by choice, was snowshoe racing at high altitudes. I did a lot of races out in Leadville, Colo., all throughout Summit County, like Breckenridge and Frisco. There was a small group of us weirdos that did the snowshoe racing circuit, year after year. I remember my coldest race was negative 17 air temperature. That was super fun, but you know, there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. I definitely like being out there in those elements.
That transpired through trail running out in the Breckenridge area. When I moved back to Chicago for a while, that turned into long distance running. I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2012, and that was a cool way to see the city that I grew up in. It's such a cool race, just going through all the different neighborhoods and seeing the whole city basically by foot in one day, was super cool. Then that kind of spun into my knee injuries. They both take turns and it's more just wear and tear. Surgery would be needed, so to avoid that route when I moved back to Colorado, long-distance hiking and high altitude hiking took running's place.
Question: Let's talk a little bit about snowshoe racing. For those who aren't familiar with it, compare it to a trail race. Are there similarities, like aid station to aid station, and what kind of distances are we talking about?
Answer: They are anything from 5K to 12K. There was one main person that put together what they called "courses,” because you're literally building a trail through the mountains in the wintertime, through trees, and up and down hills, and drifts of snow. I think this person really took pride in making it as hard as possible. So the trail would take you over this huge hill and then over this downed tree, and there's only one way to awkwardly climb over it while you have tennis rackets strapped to your feet. But it was super fun and I think that was what I liked about it. It was challenging, and it was like a group of extremists that just really enjoyed it. When I first started, I was the back of the pack, last one every single time, new to this whole thing. Then my last year, I actually took first place for women in my last race ever. So that was a cool way to go out.
Question: Are you out because of injury or wanting to focus on your hiking adventures?
Answer: When I lived in Breckenridge it was easier to get to these races, but now, from where I live in Colorado Springs, the shortest races would be at least a four and a half hour round trip drive and some of the other races closer to like six hours round trip, so a little bit more of a time commitment versus a desire to do it.
Question: Got it. Tell me about hiking and kind of how that's become a passion of yours.
Answer: When I moved to Colorado Springs, my sister actually took me on the Manitou Incline, which I'm looking at right now. I can see it from my window. She said, you got to try this hike. It's more of a physical challenge than a hike. It's 2,768 steps. It's an old mining cart road that they used to drag with the ropes and pulleys, like mining carts up the mountain to bring stuff up and down. They've replaced it over the years, putting in railroad ties as steps to go up the mountain. So in 0.8 miles you get 2,000 feet of elevation gain. It's literally just straight up the mountain, but it's super cool.
Then you can choose to go back down the steps or you can take the Barr Trail, which is the same trail that can take you to the top of Pikes Peak. You can take that trail down, which is a three-mile trail down back to where you started. I started off doing that and I really liked the challenge. That's something I currently do one or two times a week, just to kind of keep my head in the game and challenge myself. Then that led to the allure that a lot of people have in Colorado — hiking 14ers. I think there's 56 technically 14,000-foot summits in Colorado and I've done 17 so far.
I like the way you have to get in your headspace the same way as you do when you're doing long distance running, and have to take it one step at a time. When you're at altitude, anything above 10,000 feet, you start to feel it a little bit. You get a little slower mentally and physically. Then above 12,000 feet, you're really like, OK, there's definitely not as much oxygen as when I started this thing. Then between 13 and 14, it's kind of like you take 20, 25 steps and you have to stop. Your body does not work like it normally does when you're here in Colorado Springs at 6,000 feet. Your body just responds so differently. It's interesting, that mindset you have to get into to really adapt and let your body do what it's doing, but push yourself at the same time, and it's that sweet spot that I love, getting to that place.
Question: For a lot of ultra runners and people who explore and do these things, it's as much for the physical challenge as it is for finding that peace as far as mental wellness goes. Is that part of your “why” — a reason to seek adventure?
Answer: One of the many reasons I love Colorado and have chosen twice now in my life to move here, is the mountains, right? Nature — to me that's therapy. I work in a pretty high stress industry and have a high stress job, and that's where I go for therapy and to really humble myself and find my center. So it's a combination of the physical, the mental and the spiritual of just being surrounded by something that's greater than yourself. It's such a perspective shift when you're out there. I joke that I get sweaty eyeballs at the top of the mountain. You get there and it's a rush. I seriously cry every time I get to the very top because it's such a feeling of, holy shit, I just did that. I just pushed through some serious mental stuff where I wanted to quit. My body was giving up on me, and now I'm here looking at probably one of the greatest views anybody in the state is looking at right now.
Question: For somebody who doesn't see themselves as a runner or they don't think they can commit to that, but they still see it as something they want to do, what do they need to know about adventuring and going on these long, challenging hikes?
Answer: I could talk about that for six hours. I definitely think that it can be intimidating for a lot of people to do that because it's not necessarily the norm, especially people who are in cities and aren't used to being in nature. Then even as a woman, I do a lot of these things solo, and I wasn't brought up to go to the wilderness by myself. Society tells me there's plenty of other places I should be, and that's not one of them. To get through that has been interesting. I think using social media helps. I follow a few different accounts on social media that are very empowering for getting outside and getting past the fear.
Research also is a big part of what I do. When I go on any hike that's new to me, I will look on AllTrails, I will read reviews on conditions, even drive to some of these trailheads. That's why I have a Jeep Wrangler so I can get to places a lot of cars can't get to. There's a lot of important information you can find just by doing research, and I think that gives you that confidence and you feel you're really well prepared, almost over prepared.
Then I would say gear is such a big thing. I am a self-proclaimed gear snob, I love gear. I cannot be trusted in REI, I need a chaperone. But even going to a place like REI, the employees are so helpful. Maybe you're going to the East Coast or West Coast where you might get more rain, and they're going to help you get the right type of gear to be comfortable. Being prepared is one of the biggest things to having confidence, and then I would say exposure therapy is such a big thing for me.
I saw a woman a couple of weeks ago on the Incline at probably the steepest part. There's a 60% grade at one of these parts, and I remember the first time I did it I was on my feet and hands crawling up these steps because I thought I was going to fall off the mountain. It feels that intimidating and that steep, and now I literally run up and down it. This woman was doing what I was doing three years ago, and I actually said to her, ‘Great job,’ and she's like, ‘I'm terrified right now!’ I told her I literally was you three years ago and now I'm bounding down this thing. Just keep putting yourself out there.
Question: Let's segue over to solar. Tell me about the career shift you made just over three years ago, how you went about it and what inspired you to make that change.
Answer: My background is in finance. When I lived in the Midwest, I was in sales training, sales coaching, sales directing, team building, and leadership roles. When I moved back to Colorado for the second time, I decided now is the time. I want to utilize all of the skills that I've acquired throughout my entire career, but I want to do it in something that feels more meaningful to me, and the environment is very meaningful to me. I think that there's so much that we can do better and differently. We're in this interesting place in the world where it's starting to change slowly, but how can we get it to change faster?
The solar industry was something I was very interested in and actually sought out specifically. I went on a bunch of interviews and had a job offer on the table from a finance firm and a solar company. I was like, OK, we've made it to this point, this fork in the road, and I made the jump over to solar three years ago. Oh my goodness, I knew it would be a lot to learn, but I'm still learning new things every day just because it is a growing industry. You have not only solar panels, but you have backup batteries for your homes and everything in between. With the electrification of homes now and vehicles, we're just leaning a lot more on electricity versus fossil fuels, and the need for solar is so high. It's been a very gratifying industry to get into. It's been a roller coaster with the economy and how that's taken a lot of twists and turns, but I really do believe that solar is the way of the future, for residential especially.
I think it's cool that we can have our own little micro power plant on our roofs, like I currently have myself. I know that all the energy that I'm using in my home is being generated by the sun, and it's a cooler feeling than I would have anticipated. The day I turned my solar on, it felt good! I'm doing something that in my little world is making a difference, and I think that's just going to become the way of the future. We don't really have much of a choice.
Question: What has been your biggest takeaway?
Answer: Solar is far more accessible for people than they really think. The company I work for started in 2007, so they have a lot of experience. It's finding the right company and then the rest is easy from there. Making the decision is the hardest part. We help customers and homeowners get solar and gain energy independence. It can be complex but you leave that up to the experts, right? It's like when you go to buy a car, you don't have to worry about building it, you just show up and it's built. It's not as hard as people might think.
Question: Let's talk about the financial part of it, because I think that's a concern that people have. Some of it is probably misinformation, or maybe outdated information, about the cost. Walk me through that part of it.
Answer: I love having that conversation with homeowners because, to me, what's your break-even point with your electric company? You don't have one, right? You're going to be paying that month after month anyway, so that's the perspective that I like to try and help homeowners understand.
It's kind of like owning and renting. Are you renting your electricity from the utility company, or are you owning it from your solar panels? Think about it this way: If, 20 years ago, somebody gave you a gas card that locked in the price of gas of what it was 20 years ago, would you do that today? Would you be happy that you did that today knowing that gas prices have tripled, quadrupled since then? This whole time you would have locked in that rate.
That's kind of what going solar does. You're locking in that rate every single year, month after month, with a fixed loan or cash if you're paying that. So to me, that just makes a lot more sense. Then also you have the federal tax credit, which is currently 30% for the next nine more years. You get to claim 30% of what you paid for your system on your taxes. It's the same thing with electric vehicles, and a lot of these more environmental cues that we have right now, you're able to get a tax benefit from it. That's going to go away once solar becomes more mainstream.
Question: There are financial incentives on both the federal level and in some states too, right? I would imagine California and some other more progressive states do reward homeowners who go down this path.
Answer: Yeah, even the utility companies will have that because they need help if they don't have the infrastructure to add solar farms, which a lot of them are having to go to. It actually helps the utility companies when homes are going solar, as well, because you're producing that solar instead of leaning on the grid. It helps free up some of what they're having to produce themselves. Even down to certain cities, like the city of Denver, has different rebates right now. One of the biggest utility companies in the United States, Xcel Energy, has different rebates depending on where you're at in the country. There's definitely a lot of incentives out there to go solar, for sure.
Question: What is your job with Freedom Solar Power?
Answer: I am the area sales manager. I run our sales team for the entire state of Colorado. I do have my hands in all of the other departments. Customer satisfaction is my biggest priority, so that starts with educating my team on how to go out there and educate homeowners and be a consultant versus a salesperson, which is important to me. Then how the homeowners can have the best experience with us. I work a lot with our design department, our permitting department, the operations and installations teams. It's been nice to be a part of every aspect of the business to really understand the full picture.
Question: Solar has certainly come a long way in three years. From what you know, where do you see it in, say, five years? What changes are we going to see?
Answer: Solar leasing is going to be more popular. There are companies right now that do solar leasing programs, but again, it's just outweighing the benefit of renting and owning like you do with your house, or leasing a car or buying a car. I think that choice is going to be more mainstream. Then I would say with solar panels, the technology has been around for decades, so there are little micro tweaks that are happening in different ways. There's solar roof tiles that are not very efficient right now, but I think the technology and the idea is going to grow. I really think batteries are going to be a huge thing that are going to change things a lot in the next three, five years. We sell them right now at the company I work for, but the Tesla Powerwall, you basically charge the battery that sits in your garage. If the power goes out, or if you want to charge your electric vehicle at night, you have that backup battery that's charged from your solar panels to use in your home. It makes you even more energy independent.
Question: Explain solar leasing to me.
Answer: You install panels on the roof of a house, and you sign a contract for a length of terms, just like you would with a car or renting an apartment. There are leases that are for an apartment for six months, for 12 months, indefinite, that kind of thing. Solar leasing kind of has the same concept of, you're going to pay X amount per month and this lease agreement starts at a minimum of, say, three years, but then you can extend that after this month. A lot of the leasing programs now have the option to buy after the end of a certain amount of time, too. I do think they're really making it more feasible for homeowners.
Question: We are three weeks away from the winter solstice, the day when there's the least amount of sunlight. Tell me about those who are reading this and saying, well, it's pitch black outside and it's only five o'clock. How is solar beneficial in the dark, dreary days of winter?
Answer: We build solar systems based on a 12-month average of consumption in your home. To put it into reality, I have an app on my phone that is linked to the consumption of my house and the production of my solar panels and where I'm netting out. Your home is not going to use all of the electricity that it's producing in real time, so it gets sent back to the grid, but it's tracked through a meter. So when you're using it again at night, you're not charged for it. We build systems that are for the length of the year.
In Colorado, we've been having historically warmer summers, so I've been using my air conditioning a bit more in the summer and that's drawing a lot of electricity. But then I'm not using much in the winter because my heat is gas, and then spring and fall my windows are open because it's beautiful out, so all that solar is basically going into a piggy bank for me to use during the summer and at night, when it's dark out.
The way solar systems are built, you don't just net out every single month, but it's a year average that we build our systems on. So again, going with a reputable company that fully understands that and that will design a system for the entire year is super important.
Question: Where does Freedom Solar Power operate?
Answer: Freedom Solar Power is based in Austin, Texas, and serves all of Texas. I work for the Colorado branch, so basically the entire front range of Colorado. We're also in Florida, Raleigh, Charlotte, so on the East Coast, as well, and we're continually growing. I would just say if anybody lives in those areas and is interested they can definitely reach out to me personally. Also visit freedomsolarpower.com. We have a great referral program, too, so if anybody knows of anybody looking for solar in those areas, you get $500 per person that you refer that actually does solar, which is a pretty big bonus.
Name: Colleen Clarke
Hometown: Chicago > Breckenridge > Chicago > Colorado Springs.
Number of years running: “I have been chasing my dreams my whole life (insert laugh emoji) but really, from junior high cross country in the early 90s to snowshoe racing in the early 2000s, then my first half marathon in 2006 and full marathon in 2012, and off and on after a knee injury ever since. These days I stick to high altitude hiking and steady ascents for the adrenaline I used to get from long distance running.”
How many miles a week do you typically run: “These days I focus more on training for fourteeners, Colorado has more than 50 mountains over 14,000 feet. I have a consistent routine climbing the Manitou Incline twice a week. It’s a 2,000-foot elevation gain in under one mile, and I jog the three mile trail back down. Occasionally if I’m feeling like an extra challenge I’ll take the steps back down instead.”
Point of pride: “You’ll see a theme here. Standing at the top of a summit allowing my body to acclimate with less oxygen, admiring an epic view, usually with sweaty eyeballs.”
Favorite race distance: “At this point in my journey, I’ll say instead, my favorite altitude is over 14,000 feet. The feeling of standing at one of the highest peaks in the state and even country is the closest thing I’ve found to the energy you get from distance running.”
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “Water! I take hydration at high altitude very seriously.”
Favorite piece of gear: “As a self-proclaimed gear enthusiast, it’s hard to pick just one. I’ll say my backpack(s), depending on the distance and time of year, I have five packs ranging from 15L to 60L including a water resistant pack for winter treks.”
Who inspires you: “Who I was yesterday. My life has taken a lot of turns and I am continually seeking to grow. I think we all need to be proud of where we are at and not have society tell us to humble ourselves with that. I am both confident and humble in my own journey.”
Favorite or inspirational song: “I love the sound of nature when I’m hiking. Back when I could train long distance, Peter Gabriel’s Passion album felt so energizing and almost primal to run to.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “I have a fear of heights, which through lots of exposure therapy (aka just getting past the fear, doing it and repeat) I have a mantra when I am on a ridge, up high with steep drops on one or both sides. I repeat to myself, ‘you are grounded, you are safe’ and just take one foot in front of the other and it really helps.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @ColleenClarkeCoaching