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Monday, June 14, 2010

GreenBiz: Wisconsin renewable energy fair is 'largest and longest running'


By Gregg Hoffmann
What started a couple decades ago when a dozen or so believers in renewable energy decided to show what they were doing has grown into the largest and longest running energy fair in the country.

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association will hold its 21st annual Energy Fair, June 18-20, outside Custer. More than 275 exhibitors from all over the world and 200 workshops will be featured at the fair.

“It’s grown a great deal since that first year,” said Doug Stingle, who is in his first year of heading the fair for MREA. “It speaks to the growth of interest in renewable energy and alternative sources and methods. It also speaks to the dedication of those people who have been part of its development.”

Included among those dedicated people who were involved from or near the start are B.J. and Carol Welling, who run a cabinet and carpentry business in the area, Bob and Marquerite Ramlow, who have been involved in thermal solar for decades, Mark Morgan, a designer, and Jim Kerbel, who has been involved in renewables for years. These are just some of the veterans for the fair.

“It started when Home Power Magazine ran an editorial saying that renewable energy was being talked about as the future, but that they knew people were already doing things out there and should hold a fair to show it,” Stingle said. “They did so and it has grown every year.”

The Custer area is a natural since MREA is headquartered there, UW-Stevens Point has been oriented to environmental and renewable issues for years and because many people in the area have been working in the renewable energy area for decades.

“There is somewhat of a tradition here,” Stingle said. “It’s a small area, but has had people who have been doing things in this area for quite some time.”

Topics of workshops over the three days vary from “Eat Year Round From Your Garden” to “Great Green Tax Credits” to advanced renewable energy technology workshops such as “Commissioning Solar Hot Water Systems.

“We have a theme on Friday this year of ‘Local Food Friday’, which will emphasize growing, processing and storing of food locally,” Stingle said. “It is a growing area of interest as people become more concerned about the quality of their food and about costs of transporting it thousands of miles.”

Jeremy Solin, who has worked in the local food movement for several years, will serve as the keynote speaker on Friday.

On Saturday, Bill McKibben, author and activist, will talk about his newest book, “Earth.” In it, he contends that humans have fundamentally changed the planet and puts forth some solutions to problems that have arisen from those changes.

Amanda Little, who has been published widely on the environment, energy and technology, will be the keynote speaker on Sunday. Little is the recipient of the Jane Bagley Lehman Award for excellence in environmental journalism.

On all three days, some practical workshops will be emphasized on green home construction, such as straw bale, cord wood and whole tree.

“This is a great event for somebody wanting to build their own home, or somebody wanting to get into the business,” Stingle said. “It’s an opportunity to meet and talk with some of the leading people in the business.”

Exhibitors are organized in a clean energy car show, education area, a farmers market and in four exhibit halls.

There also is entertainment on all three days. Performers include Patchouli, Baba Ghanooj, Canon Ball, Norm Dombrowski and the Happy Notes, and Galyne.

“Renewsical: A Musical About Renewable Energy” also will debut on Saturday at the fair, Directed by Ed Lemar, Renewsical is an interactive stage performance that uses dancing, music, poetry, puppetry and an LED light show to “teach the technology of energy efficiency, sustainability and renewable energy in order to inspire action toward a healthy economy, cleaner environment and a brighter future.”

MREA received a $3.3 million grant last year 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.

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

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.”

The Energy Fair remains a big part of MREA’s vision and program. In recent years, it has drawn more than 20,000 people over its three days.

Tickets are $15 a day or $35 for the weekend. For more information, contact MREA at 715-592-6595 or online at http://www.the-mrea.org.

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

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