• WisBusiness

Monday, November 23, 2009

Midwest Renewable Energy Association works to facilitate 'green' business practices


By Gregg Hoffmann
As the green business movement gains momentum, trained workers are needed, and some sort of guide through the growing list of agencies and companies involved in it, is necessary.

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), located in Custer, outside of Stevens Point, with an office in the Milwaukee area, is trying to provide those and other services to this movement.

MREA recently received a $3.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for solar installation training. MREA is working with six regional training centers throughout the Midwest to increase capacity for quality solar instruction.

The non-profit organization was one of three entities located in Wisconsin to receive the grants. The cities of Milwaukee and Madison received $600,000 and $370,000 each.

"The MREA is proud to be part of this Wisconsin team that is leading the nation in clean energy production and green job creation," said Tehri Parker, executive director of MREA at the time the grant was announced in late October. "These DOE awards attest to the commitment of our Governor, and local leaders, to build the legislative foundation for projects of this type to thrive."

MREA actually has been at the "green biz" work for quite some time. "The organization was formed in 1990 and grew out of an Energy Fair, which was started by a group of people interested in renewable energy and the environment," said Gina Sinisi, communications coordinator for the MREA. "We've grown considerably since then."

The organization currently has more than 3,200 active members, representing 39 states and three foreign counties. They range from students to business people.

That Energy Fair remains a big part of MREA's program. The event has become the world's largest energy education event. Last year, it drew more than 23,000 people over its three days and featured 275 vendors.

"Our vendors represent every aspect of the renewable, sustainable area, ranging from beekeepers to farmers to construction companies," said Doug Stingle, program director for MREA.

About 200 workshops are offered at the Fair, which is annually held in June, to coincide with the Summer Solstice.

The MREA also is the home for the ReNEW the Earth Institute, a demonstration site and educational facility at the Custer location. The Institute has working renewable energy systems, ranging from wind to solar hot water. The organization also offers more than 120 workshops per year, ranging from one day to two weeks, for homeowners, builders, educators, architects, engineers and others. It is the only organization in the country that offers certification programs for renewable energy site assessors.

On Dec. 3-4, at the Monona Terrace in Madison, the MREA will hold the Solar Thermal '09 Conference. Installers, manufacturers, site assessors, dealers, distributors, state agency representatives and others will be involved.

As a chapter of the American Solar Energy Society, MREA hosts a tour of solar homes and businesses throughout Wisconsin in October.

"Our activities are growing as interest in renewable energy grows," said Sinisi. "We are trying to meet the needs of people involved in various areas."

MREA maintains a database and other informational resources on grants, experts in various areas, technical assistance and other topics. "If we can't help you, we try to refer you to somebody who can," said Stingle.

While training and educational work for those already involved in renewable energy fields has grown, MREA also remains true to one of its original purposes, as an advocate for renewables and protection of the environment.

MREA "promotes renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable living through education and demonstration," reads an answer to the "Frequently Asked Question" of "What is the MREA?"

"The MREA is working to protect the environment by educating the public about the appropriate use of natural resources to meet our energy needs."

The listed "vision" of the MREA is to "provide the highest quality renewable energy education and training experiences available. Our programs and services will respond to evolving energy issues, empower people to make wise lifestyle choices and be accessible to the broadest possible audience. We will share our success with other like-minded organizations, recognizing that we are stronger when we all work together for our common goals."

Addressing the last part of that vision statement, Sinisi and Stingle emphasized that MREA works with technical schools and other educational institutions, as well as many other groups, including Habitat for Humanity.

"We have a project in Milwaukee where people who are taking our training work directly with specific homes being built by Habitat for Humanity," Stingle said. MREA also is partnering with Milwaukee Shines to develop Milwaukee as a Solar City.

Funding for MREA comes from a variety of sources, including program fees, grants, donations and independent contracts. The recent Department of Energy grant is a big one for the organization.

Over the next five years, the grant will help provide instruction, installation and curriculum development experiences in solar work to 200 instructors from six Midwestern states. The program will involve 120 instructors in the development, review and use of shared instructional resources.

A national network of solar instructors will share resources and a Midwest Solar Training Network will be formed to promote and advance training programs.

"You can see the momentum building in solar and other renewable energies," Stingle said. "We need trained people ready to go as it continues to grow."

You can find out more about the MREA at www.the-mrea.org or by calling the Custer office at 715-592-6595 or the Milwaukee office at 414-431-0758.

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He writes the GreenBiz column monthly.

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