SEI: 20 years young and counting |

SEI: 20 years young and counting

John Colson
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
SEI contributed photo

CARBONDALE, Colorado – For two decades, a small non-profit called Solar Energy International has been a leading voice in the solar energy and renewable energy fields.

Winning accolades around the nation and the globe for its innovative programs, SEI, as it is known, has long occupied a place at the vanguard of renewable energy education.

Executive Director Johnny Weiss says SEI is now teaching roughly 3,000 people a year about solar power, wind power, hydro power and more.

“It attracts and brings in people from all over,” Weiss said of SEI. Students come from all over the U.S., Central and South America, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, even Africa.

The list of alumni is now 16,000 strong. Those numbers may come as a surprise to those who have visited SEI’s funky headquarters in the old Carbondale Town Hall at 76 S Second St., next to the KDNK-FM community access radio station.

About a decade ago, Weiss and others realized some of their staff were migrating over McClure Pass to Paonia, where the cost of living was lower and the pace of life a little slower.

So SEI acquired seven acres and established a western campus, with the result that roughly two dozen employees are split between the two facilities.

There was a time, in fact, that Weiss was thinking he should relocate the facility entirely to Paonia, and went so far as to buy a house there.

But the organization’s roots in Carbondale were deep, he said, and the impulse passed.

So today, SEI will be kicking out the jams for its 20th birthday party, which is formally advertised as an “invitation-only” event at the Third Street Center.

The party is intended to thank those who have been supporters over the years, introduce supporters old and new to SEI’s new classroom space at the Third Street Center (located at the south end of Third Street), and to remind anyone who will listen that the tale of SEI has been a long, strange and enlightening trip.

Weiss, who came to Carbondale nearly 40 years ago as a carpenter, quickly joined up with a couple of other locals to build houses with solar energy features, realizing that energy self sufficiency would become a key to society’s survival at some point.

“In the 70s, I was a solar builder, building some of the earlier solar homes in Carbondale,” he recalled.

By the late 1970s he was working at Windstar, an environmental think tank founded by singer John Denver in Snowmass.

Through the 1980s, Weiss and two partners, Ken Olson and Steve McCarney, ran a solar-building vocational education program for Colorado Mountain College near Glenwood Springs.

And in 1991, Weiss and Olson co-founded SEI, shortly before Olson moved to Mexico with his wife and family, leaving Weiss, his board of directors and a growing and dedicated staff to take the fledgling nonprofit into the future.

These days, Weiss noted, “Solar energy is going mainstream,” and SEI is changing to keep pace with the times.

The main hands-on training facility, he said, is now in Paonia. Carbondale is mainly for classroom instruction and administration.

SEI also set up online classes for those students who couldn’t make the trek to Carbondale, or who wanted to check out the program before making a commitment. That program currently is run by Chris Turek, who came to SEI with a decade of experience working with online academic organizations around the globe.

And SEI will take the classes to the students in many cases.

The online workshops have included international sessions on renewable energy for rural villages in Totogalpa, Nicaragua, solar power training in Rancho Mastatal, Costa Rica, and renewable-energy promotional efforts in Cuba.

Across the U.S., classes are now being offered at Guemes Island, Wash., Fayetteville, Ark., and San Diego, Calif.

And as more and more solar energy training institutes crop up, Weiss said, his talents are turning more and more to training the trainers.

Weiss is working with the U.S. Department of Energy to develop curricula and distribute resources and materials to start-up training facilities. He is hoping to get a licensing deal started to farm out SEI’s techniques and experiences in order to help others follow in SEI’s footsteps.

“We’ve all wanted solar to go mainstream,” he said a little bemusedly, “and now that it’s gone mainstream, our job is to be leaders, so that other people can do the teaching.”

“The competition and the economy are the challenges right now,” he noted.

Organizationally, SEI has administrators and marketing experts where once the place was filled with nothing but alternative-energy teachers and builders.

But the mission remains.

“People aren’t here to fool around,” he noted. “They’re here to get an education in renewables,” in an intensive program that can last for a week or a month, or a lifetime if one decides to stick around and become a teacher or a member of the SEI team.

Even Weiss’ role has changed. He now oversees a leadership circle of individuals who specialize in different parts of the organization’s mission.

Laurie Guevara-Stone, who has been with SEI nearly as long as Weiss, came to Carbondale to learn solar building techniques before heading to Central America on projects of her own in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

After the projects were completed, she came right back.

With a graduate degree in energy engineering from the University of Colorado in Boulder, she fit right in, and currently is the organization’s international program manager.

“I thought it was the greatest bunch of people to work with,” she recalled. “Their hearts were in the right place, they were doing the right thing, and they were having fun doing it.”

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