Gatherings of the Tribe: Grassroots Solar Events Build Community Support

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For many years now, I have had the pleasure of attending renewable energy expos, solar industry conventions and meetings of the “solar community” both large and small. As the solar energy industry has grown from a niche market into a mainstream technology, the media often focuses on large, international trade shows. But what about your local solar get-together?

The Solar Power International conference turns 15 this year, and The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) held its 19th annual National Solar Tour in 2014, with fledgeling events like PV America offering new forums for solar pros to get together and see the latest that the industry has to offer. But what about the regional, state and local events? Some of these grassroots solar pow-wows have been around even longer than the “big boys,” and are still going strong. What I love about these more “homegrown” events is that they really foster a sense of community. They are also the first step for many solar newbies into the wonderful world of sustainable living.

Texas Renewable Roundup   photo:digitaljournal.com

Texas Renewable Roundup photo:digitaljournal.com


For example, the Texas Solar Energy Society has fourteen years under its belt with their annual Renewable Energy Roundup and Sustainable Living Expo, which takes place in Belton, Texas. In 2014, they featured speakers on not only solar issues, but topics like “Rainwater Collection: 10,000 Years in the Making,” “Combining Wind and Solar Power Systems in the Home” “Backyard Aquaponic Farming: From Small to Large Systems,” “Building a High Performance Home- the Balance Between Your Vision & Wallet,” and “Electric Vehicles: Creating the Market in Texas.”

SolWest is Oregon’s long-running renewable energy fair, now going into its 17th year. SolWest takes place every June, where, according to their website, “Dozens of one-hour workshops help participants understand the basics of solar electricity, low-cost do-it-yourself solar projects, setting up wind, microhydro, or solar hot water systems, creating an off-grid paradise, constructing green buildings, raising small livestock, gardening, preserving food, and more.”

SolarFest in Vermont started in 1995 when a “group of friends with overlapping passions for music and renewable energy planned a big party.” In 2015, Vermont SolarFest will celebrate their 20th anniversary by staying true to their roots, celebrating music, art and renewable energy.

Way up North,the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) has hosted their annual Alaska Renewable Energy Fair for 10 years. They feature workshops on self-sufficiency topics, off-grid living, residential and commercial solar, and even sustainable 401K investing!

The grandaddy of all of the grassroots renewable energy gatherings is the Midwest Renewable Energy Associations Energy Fair. In 2015, they will celebrate 26 years of gathering in the woods of Wisconsin near Custer, just outside of Stevens Point. This event draws as many as 25,000 people each summer, and offers three days of non-stop classes, workshops, demonstrations and camaraderie. Every major manufacturer of solar equipment exhibits at the Energy Fair, but unlike the big industry trade shows, MREA’s event has the added attraction of locally brewed Wisconsin Beer and live music under the tall pines, not to mention the VERY Wisconsin tradition of a Sunday morning pancake breakfast, with a LIVE POLKA BAND!! You haven’t lived until you have done the “Chicken Dance” with a bunch of hung-over solar industry reps, jacked on fresh maple syrup and organic coffee!

photo:MREA

photo:MREA


These renewable energy fairs, sustainable living of expos and solar festivals may lack the slick polish of a major international trade show, but they retain the “hippie spirit” that kept solar and windpower technology moving forward during the dark days of the 80’s and early 90’s. After President Reagan “pulled the plug” on subsidies for renewable energy projects in the early 80’s, these technologies were orphaned, and subsequently adopted by off-griders and “back-to-the-landers.” In the late 90’s, There was a bump in interest in solar due to concerns about grid-security related to the “Y2K bug.” Thankfully, Y2K came and went with only comparatively minor computer issues, but the interest in solar and wind power remained. Now, these gatherings of the “solar tribe” have gained main-stream legitimacy, but in many cases, they have kept their backwoods roots. At the MREA festival, you find an amazingly eclectic mix. From Silicon Valley executives to Amish farmers, Chicago IBEW electricians to organic farmers, visitors and solar enthusiasts from Iceland to India. The workshops continue to showcase workshops on “Do it Yourself” (DIY) projects, but increasingly they also include sessions on tax issues, grants loans and other financing options, building and electrical code issues, professional certification and other issues relevant to solar pros.

Next summer, if you are a solar professional, a homeowner exploring the possibilities of solar for your home, or a business owner looking into the opportunities to take advantage of the benefits of solar, take a look at the events close to home. Chances are, you will have a great time, learn a lot, meet some wonderful people, and come home at the end of the weekend with a new-found excitement for solar.

To find a local, state or regional solar, renewable energy or sustainable living event in your area, check the following resources:Home Power Magazine– Events page

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