Kim Wheels could go by many different titles, but the one I like the most is Energy Consultant.
Kim lives in Ophir, CO, a small town at nearly 10,000 feet outside Telluride. She provides home energy efficiency consultation through her business, Lotus Energy Solutions, and is the Energy Programs Coordinator for Eco Action Partners, San Miguel County’s sustainability organization. She is a mechanical engineer by education and training, but isn’t a mechanical engineer. Her career in renewable energy and sustainability is a blend of her technical skills, a deep interest in renewable energy, her love of being outdoors, and being connected to the community of southwestern Colorado.
We met through a mutual friend while skiing at Eldora this winter. When she began describing her work and life in Telluride, CO, I knew she would make an interesting profile. She has found a balance that many environmental professional look for – to do the work you enjoy while also enjoying the very reason you do the work. That means being able to ski, play, and enjoy nature, while working to protect it.
We talked about her work, finding a niche as an environmental professional, and the difficulty in summing up our work in a single title. Even Energy Consultant can mean several things. I think the first quote by Kim sums it up well.
KW: It’s not just, what am I doing for work and am I making enough? Its, how does this fit with the life that I truly want to live and am I connected enough with nature and the outdoors?
TNEP: You moved to southwest Colorado from Texas. Is it what you hoped it would be? Being part of that community, is that what you were looking for?
KW: It definitely is. I knew before I even came for an interview down here. There was definitely something right about it. I came to Carbondale first, then Crested Butte, and then ended up down here. I’ve been here for over 8 years. I kind of knew this was the right place.
My business got started in part because when I first moved here I was working for a solar energy provider who needed help with his business and he also did home energy audits. I’ve never done a home energy audit, but I did commercial energy audits. I’d just come out of 8 weeks of training in Solar Energy International in solar PV design, green energy, all these different things that fit in the reason for why I got into mechanical engineering in the first place – because I was interested in renewable energy.
TNEP: You have a mechanical engineering background. Is this what you were looking for originally, to get into renewable energy?
KW: Yeah. Now you can actually get a degree in renewable energy. At the time there were 6 or 7 categories under mechanical engineering. I kind of had to create my own niche.
My Dad is in the energy field and his father was as well. I grew up with solar panels being pointed out to me, being conscious about lights not being left on. That was ingrained from day one.
This is going way back to the beginning, now that I think about it. I did a project in 10th grade on alternative power. It was a big report for social studies, I believe. That made me realize how much my Dad had rubbed off on me. I think that project was the first one. When I was a junior or senior, everything environmental stood out to me, whether it was an oceanographer, to exploring the stars, to working in wetlands. All those different things called to me.
So, I eventually decided mechanical engineering, mostly because I didn’t want to do environmental engineering. The field of environmental engineering was to clean up messes. That’s where I thought, mechanical engineers think through and problem solve before a problem gets created. That steered me to that direction. I wanted to be on the preventative side. Because of the delineation there, what environmental engineers ended up doing, I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do.
TNEP: I can image having a mechanical engineer background has been a benefit for you.
KW: It has.
When I decided I needed to make a change, when I was in Texas. When I decided that entire life wasn’t right, I didn’t recognize the value of what I had learned from the jobs that I’ve had. I was frustrated by all of them. I didn’t feel like I was making the difference I wanted to make. I was part of a cog in a wheel and it didn’t fit in my value system. Most of the jobs, not all.
I now recognize how valuable that is to my business. There’s no way I’m going back to take that test again. I’m keeping that forever.
Very soon after I had worked for the solar business here, he was on the board to start the nonprofit sustainability organization here. I’d already had this inkling that nonprofit, sustainability work was the direction I wanted to go, but the organization hadn’t been started down here. So I came down here to work for his business. The organization itself got started. One of the women who I had met and did the energy audit on her house, she became the director. I called her and said, “I want to come help you. Do you need help with energy stuff?” Within 2 weeks she had hired me on to help with carbon footprint, education, energy.
It’s been using all the engineering and scientific knowledge that I have from my business and engineering work. But it’s using it more in a social, educational communicating setting.
It’s really great. I work with the government track on the regional greenhouse gas emissions, to help them track energy use, to help them identify projects to develop programs for the community, and implementing and tracking how successful those are. I ran a rebate programs when they first came out from the state.
TNEP: It definitely sounds like you have made a mark on that community. It sounds like you have made a successful change from your previous work.
KW: It’s been cool to recognize. I’ve felt it evolve and change over the years. Finally this year I feel like I’ve found the balance between the Eco Action Partners, the sustainability organization, and my business. I feel I’m getting a lot more recognition that I felt I’d been developing. People in the community know who I am. It’s a lot of acknowledgement and appreciation.
I actually left Texas, not to come here, but to go to Outward Bound to become an outdoor leader and instructor, to never use my engineer degree again. I had applied for a job in Antarctica to be the energy conservation expert at the three different stations and I didn’t get the job. I was like, “If I can’t get the coolest freaking job that I think I can ever want, that most people wouldn’t want because it’s so adventurous, I’m done being an engineer!”
Here, I’ve managed to mix the two. I’m out in the community and communicating but also still doing technical analysis or energy audits.
TNEP: The environmental field, viewed from outside the field, is often seen as merely energy and sustainability. Do you feel that people outside the field understand and appreciate what you do?
KW: Just the other day, sitting on a chairlift, with a couple from out of town, who were like, “What do you do for work here? Can you actually make a living?” Well, how much longer is this chair lift?
I used to say I’m the energy coordinator for the sustainability organization and I have a business on the side. And now it’s more, I’m the Energy Consultant in town.
It kind of depends on who I’m talking to and how much time there is. To a lot of people, energy consultant would mean oil and gas industry.
TNEP: I like that. I’m the Energy Consultant in town. It sums it up quick.
KW: If I started off by saying I’m a mechanical engineer, there is a totally different perception of that.
I’ve also been getting into a lot of energy consciousness work. A lot of my friends are healers. The human energy field work. There’s times when I say I’m an Energy Consultant and I get people looking at me and they’re experiencing an answer on the human energy type of thing.
TNEP: Energy is a broad enough term for work in this field. When you roll that side of work into, it’ becomes even broader.
KW: I’ve been giving serious thought to adding a new component to what I do here. That would be leading women outdoors for energy healing work. Going back to my work with Outward Bound and I love to be outdoors.
I love introducing people to awareness of themselves and connection with nature. I feel like that’s the side of getting people to care about being energy efficient. If they’re not connected with nature then they could give a crap about what I do for work.
TNEP: There aren’t that many environmental professionals. A business or operation often has one. There’s one here, one there, etc. You are many ones.
KW: It’s nice in a way that it’s pretty good job security to be the only one. But at the same time there’s so much that could be done. That if there were multiple businesses there could be more work for all of us.
I feel the state-wide network that was created 5 or 6 years ago by the Governor’s energy office, now that the Alliance has taken on; it’s so different as to whose still a part of it because the funding doesn’t exist anymore to keep the jobs at most places. That network of people who work for sustainable nonprofit in rural mountain communities, it’s such a small group of people, for a huge state. There are other people who do environmental work, like you do, but relatively speaking it’s a small percentage across a state that’s got it as a really high priority.
I’m always one of the big supporters of keeping that network together so we continue to at least have each other to talk with.
I really appreciate this opportunity. It’s been great chatting.
TNEP: I liked it as well. I like hearing these stories of people doing cool, interesting work.
KW: I’m so glad you like doing it. It’s cool for me to learn and hear about other people who have branched out beyond the traditional field of whatever they got their degree in. I think that’s happening more and more these days and it’s inspirational for everybody.