A powerful new vision for a more sustainable world based upon energy effıciency, conservation, renewable energy and sustainable living is energizing the Midwest. The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) combines this vision of its forward-thinking founders with the swelling ranks of mostly rural landowners to create the world’s largest and longest-running Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair. The MREA provides the educational resources and shares the know-how that’s transforming the Midwest—if not also the nation—into more self-reliant, ecologically responsible and economically thriving local communities. The 3,000-plus member nonprofıt organization based in rural Custer is serving as the epicenter for explosive growth in the renewable energy industry and related sustainable living businesses, including green design and construction, natural building and energy effıciency.
What happened to those energy fairs of the late 1970s? This question, raised in 1989 by Richard Perez, publisher of Home Power magazine, ended up serving as a catalyst for the fırst Wisconsin-based energy fair held in August of 1990. The effort was led by a group of mostly local back-to-the-land types—many having graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a strong commitment to environmental education—who decided to create an event akin to those old energy fairs. What they didn’t realize is that it would change the course of renewable energy development in the Midwest, bring thousands of rural residents into the fold of more self-reliant and sustainable living, jumpstart the adoption of new renewable energy systems, foster the creation of hundreds of small businesses related to sustainable living and improve the quality of life for anyone living, working or playing in the region’s countryside.
“We were an action-oriented, community-based group of homesteaders with an environmental bent, often living out of VW vans with everything plugged into a cigarette lighter, powered by a solar electric module on the roof,” chuckles Mick Sagrillo, one of the MREA’s founders and its current president. “Everything clicked for our fırst energy fair with workshops based on the premise that education is empowerment. We featured the most democratic of natural resources, wind and sun, since just about anyone could produce their own power.”
Despite its apparent middle-of-nowhere location at the Portage County fairgrounds outside Amherst, the event achieved unprecedented national media coverage. This was due, in large part, to the U.S. invasion of Iraq that happened just two weeks before the fair’s opening. “We suddenly had interest in how renewable energy and energy conservation could provide homegrown solutions to the U.S. dependency on overseas oil and related political instability,” Mick explains. “The fair was another option that many homeowners and businesses were eager to explore. The more you know in order to meet your energy needs, the less you need to pay.” A rainy downpour and muddied fairgrounds threatened to undermine this fırst energy fair, which was mostly funded by penny change cobbled together by its hard-working volunteer organizers. But, once the weather cleared up, over 4,000 people attended.
About a year later, the MREA received its nonprofıt status as an organization dedicated to promoting renewable energy, energy effıciency and sustainable living through education and demonstration. Besides hosting the Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair every year, today the MREA offers hands-on workshops year-round for individuals and businesses to gain the skill sets needed to install their own systems. Workshops include how to diversify an existing business into one of the fast-growing niche areas of renewable energy system design, site analysis, installation and maintenance and natural building.
As a part of this educational effort, the MREA certifıes renewable energy site assessors for wind, solar electric and solar thermal systems. “Suddenly, rural electricians, small engineering fırms and contractors were forming their own companies and going out on their own to educate homeowners or businesses about how to put together a renewable energy system to meet their needs,” says Clay Sterling, the MREA’s education director. “This certifıcation is a way for customers to ensure that their system is installed by someone with solid training.”
The ReNew the Earth Institute—a building that serves as a one-stop eco-demonstration facility—along with a website and membership newsletter add to the reach and impact. The ReNew the Earth Institute is a state-of-the-art demonstration eco-offıce complex, retrofıtted from an existing building. A solar thermal system provides in-floor radiant heat for a classroom and two wind turbine systems and several solar electric systems generate over 7,000 kilowatts of electricity annually to power the facility. The 4,200-square-foot structure houses the MREA staff, which includes eight full-time and one part-time employees, and showcases hands-on educational displays, leading conservation and effıciency products and numerous examples of other natural building materials. The training facility, which is accredited by the Institute of Sustainable Power, is surrounded by spectacular perennial demonstration gardens and the wind and solar electric systems that power it.
Today, over 20,000 people—from farmers to rural business owners, from school teachers to elected offıcials—descend on Custer for the fair during the third weekend in June, attending over 125 workshops facilitated by leading experts in their fıeld and participating in working demonstrations of energy effıcient technologies and renewable energy systems. Featuring more than 225 exhibitor booths staffed by experts from companies showcasing their award-winning renewable energy systems, energy effıcient products or sustainable services, as well as leading nonprofıt organizations, the exhibitor area is a one-stop shop for anyone thinking about making a change to renewable energy or a more sustainable approach to living or working. A special exhibitor dinner prior to the opening of the fair fosters business-to-business collaboration and networking that continues throughout the three-day event.
“The fair attracts movers and shakers from across the nation to present workshops that address wind, solar electric, solar thermal, natural or green buildings, and many other topics,” shares Mick, who also owns a renewable energy business that focuses on wind energy system design and education. “The fair has always been a collaboration among business and the renewable energy industry. It’s about education, not sales pitches. Even the largest of the manufacturers realize the fair is where it’s happening and we’re doing what they know needs to be done but don’t have the capacity to do.”
Adding to the festive atmosphere of the fair, musical entertainers croon on one stage while children create an eco-village out of Legos or make handmade cards out of recycled seed catalogs under another big-top tent. Food vendors feature healthy and delicious meal options while adhering to a strict minimal waste policy that does not allow the use of any disposable packaging. Local farmers sell at a farmers’ market, sharing their freshly harvested fruits and vegetables to fair goers to snack on. To accommodate the growing numbers of fair goers on the 20-acre property, the MREA acquired a stand of forest nearby to create the “Back Forty” 250-site campground where, consistent with the rest of the operations, a sustainable forestry plan is in the works.
The fair continues to be the most visible contribution to the growth of the organization and the renewable energy industry. “By virtue of our existence, we have influenced statewide policies and programs,” says Katy Matthai, associate director of the MREA. While no accurate measure of renewable energy systems exists on a state or regional basis, sales of systems for business and residential use have mushroomed, with demand outstripping supply. Renewable energy friendly state laws and ample statewide renewable energy and energy conservation incentives encourage the continued growth in systems. And the MREA is right there with the educational resources to back it up.
“There’s nothing more empowering than taking your own energy needs into your own hands,” concludes Katy. In reality, the MREA has also helped create and support a whole new economic engine in rural areas that restores the land, builds greater local self-reliance for energy and food and nurtures the renewable energy sector that indeed thrives in a life-sustaining economy. “We’re all out there trying to save the world and help each other,” adds Mick. No fossil fuel needed.