This weekend marks the 27th annual Midwest Renewable Energy Association Energy Fair, in Custer Wisconsin. You might be asking yourself, “Where the hell is Custer, Wisconsin?” If so, chances are, you are a greenhorn in the solar game.
The granddaddy of solar pow wows, The Midwest Renewable Energy Association Energy Fair (or “MREA” as it is known by veteran attendees) is held each June at a converted horse farm in the rolling hills near the tiny burg of Custer, just outside of Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Drawing 15,000 attendees annually, MREA somehow manages to maintain its grassroots attitude, and the location has a lot to do with it. The show sprawls across rolling rural countryside, and camping is available nearby in a forest of tall pines. The latenight campground parties at the “Back 40” are the stuff of legend… tales of full blown raves complete with professional lighting and sound systems may or may not be true. This author can neither confirm nor deny the existence of such midsummer pagan carryings-on, but suffice it to say… fun was had by all. Except those trying to sleep in tents nearby…
The days, however, are all business. The Fair features over 250 workshops and 200-plus exhibitors. This year’s exhibitors include national firms like rack manufacturer Iron Ridge, solar thermal giant Caleffi, Kyocera, Midnite Solar, Morningstar Charge Controllers and Tesla Motors, and regional heavy-hitters like Next Energy, Lake Michigan Wind and Sun and Full Spectrum Solar. The delightful mixture is spiced up by sustainable living pioneers like regional dairy Organic Valley, Central Waters Brewing Company (a pioneer in solar brewery technology) and Gimme Shelter Construction….a high performance design/build outfit with the BEST COMPANY NAME EVER!
But I digress…. The workshop selection at MREA is really where it’s at. To be asked to do a workshop at MREA is truly and honor, and regardless of the topic– backyard composting to “Introducing the Sonnen Smart Energy Storage System”– presenters come with their “A” game. Chicago IBEW is represented, as is NABCEP…. Right next to yoga instruction and personal carbon reduction. You can up your game as a solar professional while opening your mind to living a healthier lifestyle.This year’s keynote speakers include Nomi Prins, a political-financial expert, journalist and author; J. Drake Hamliton, science policy director at Fresh Energy; John Farrell, director of democratic energy at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance; Sandrine Mubenga, CEO of SMIN Power Group and Professional Engineer at the University of Toledo; Tony Schultz, owner of Stony Acres Farm; Tom Wilhelm, professor and program coordinator of electrical technology, business and technology division at Kankakee Community College; and Mike Hornitschek, director of strategic development, StraightUpSolar.
Sandrine Mubenga of SMIN Power Group is an example of the global scope of the MREA lineup. Through SMIN Power Group she implements renewable energy solutions in Africa, particularly solar and she developed a fuel cell system for an electric vehicle and a solar-powered hydrogen generating station. A native of Congo, Mubenga founded the SMIN Power Group in 2011, which specializes in providing affordable electricity to communities using renewable energy.
“Sandrine’s story and contributions to the advancements of renewable energy is beyond inspiring. She’s got the heart, brains and determination to make renewable energy solutions a reality,” said Kaitlyn Kohl, communications coordinator, MREA.
Adding the local focus to the “Think Globally Act Locally” equation, John Farrell, director of democratic energy at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis where his work focuses on distributed generation. John’s work appears most regularly on Energy Self-Reliant States, a blog with timely and compelling analysis of current energy discussions and policy. The posts are frequently enriched by charts, translating the complex economics of energy into tools for advancing local energy ownership and have been regularly syndicated at Grist, CleanTechnica, and Renewable Energy World.
Finally, at the end of a long hot day of attending inspiring and educational sessions held in large outdoor tents, there is cold beer. It is Wisconsin, after all! Live music goes well into the evening on the grounds of the fair, and the assortment of great food available is impressive, and local watering holes in Stevens Point and Custer are packed with solar installers comparing notes and swapping stories.
Sunday Morning marks another “only in Wisconsin” tradition; the “Polka Breakfast,” featuring Norm Dombrowski & The Happy Notes with amazing all you can eat pancakes, eggs, bacon and more, all prepared by the good folks at Organic Valley, and proceeds go to help support the MREA.
If you missed MREA in 2016, think about adding it to your schedule for next year. Either as an exhibitor, a presenter or just as an attendee. It is the most fun you can have at a world-class industry conference.