|The Midwest Renewable Energy Association Fair, in Wisconsin, inspired some Michiganders to launch the state’s own, similar event in 2005. (Photo: MREA)|
Energy—how it’s made and how it’s used—affects everyone, particularly with rising fuel costs and growing environmental concerns. So understanding and doing something about it is appealing, particularly if it also involves fun.
That’s why Michigan Energy Fair officials are confident that there will be a good turnout at the Ingham County Fair Grounds, near Mason, this Friday and Saturday for their 10th annual event. They say that with its first-hand, up-to-date information, plus food booths, music, and kids’ programs, the fair will attract an audience well beyond tree huggers—although there is a special treat for those folks, and another for high school students who are into science and technology.
“It brings such an interesting mix of people together,” said Del Bachert, director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, the nonprofit that produces the fair. “You can exchange and get ideas, ask questions, get answers, swap business cards, and chat about new products.”
This year’s fair might be arriving right on time, with national and statewide polls showing strong support for investing in more clean energy, Michigan’s governor and lawmakers eyeing next steps for developing the state’s clean-energy economy, and the rapidly falling cost of home- and business-sized clean energy systems.
The fair’s founder, Allan O’Shea, is a longtime solar and wind power installer operating from the tiny northern Michigan village of Mesick. He launched the first MEF in 2005, aided by a group of Manistee-area volunteers. O’Shea was inspired by a visit several years earlier to The Energy Fair, a very large event in Wisconsin produced by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association and celebrating its 25th year.
O’Shea said many more people are interested in clean energy and energy efficiency than a decade ago.
“I can honestly tell you that the interest has more than tripled in the last 18 months,” O’Shea said. “And it’s very sophisticated. People who own businesses, commercial facilities—and not just breweries or vineyards, but industrial applications, too, are asking questions. So are homeowners who are engineers. It really is invigorating. I’m glad I’m still around to enjoy that.”
But a crucial problem remains.
“A lot of folks don’t have the slightest idea of how to get started on this,” said O’Shea, whose business, Contractors Building Supply, now fabricates and installs solar panels for homes and businesses around northern Michigan. “But nobody is helping. So I believe there is an even stronger need for this now than there was 10 years ago.”
Many Green Pathways
Those showing up at the fairgrounds this weekend will find dozens of helpful forums, workshops, and equipment and service vendors.
Friday’s program is aimed at energy professionals. They can catch forums on crucial state and utility policies that could help or hurt their business—including the results of recent Solar Working Group meetings in Lansing. They’ll also hear about the possible effects on their businesses of the U.S. EPA’s new federal carbon emissions rules, and the opportunities Consumers Energy’s clean energy programs provide.
Saturday is for homeowners and businesses. They can attend “how-to panels” on, among other topics, rooftop solar power, whole-home energy efficiency projects, the cost and advantages of geothermal heating and cooling, and the economics of small-scale wind turbines.
There’s lots of stuff to wander around and look at, too: The fair’s website lists more than 100 exhibitors. Their services range from efficiency and renewables projects financing; weatherproofing that nixes energy-wasting, uncomfortable drafts; and home-friendly solar panel, geothermal, and wind power installations; to high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment; and campaigns to improve the state’s modest clean energy and efficiency laws, which strongly affect market activity.
Tom Ulrich, CEO of Cincinnati-based RedHawk Energy Systems LLC, said his company rented a booth at the fair for the first time this year because he already has sales people working in Michigan and wanted to give it a shot.
His company works with businesses. It helps them design large solar systems and tie them into the power grid. It also provides “remote power” systems where utility grids don’t exist, and installs back-up power systems for hospitals and factories that need highly stable, ultra-dependable electricity.
“Certainly in the last five to eight years, there’s been a tremendous shift,” Ulrich said of the business world’s interest in clean energy and efficiency. He said some of his work stems directly from increased interest in LEED certification, a national system that rates the efficiency of a building’s construction and energy use.
“Adding solar to a building earns them more LEED points,” he said, “so we’ve done work based on owners’ desire to have a renewable energy component. A lot of companies desire to be perceived as having a green side to their facility.”
Ulrich said his booth would have “photos of projects we’ve done, unique system capabilities we are able to provide, and a number of white papers and case histories. We’ll be ready to discuss why someone put solar on their roof, and have handouts and photographs about that, too.”
Outside the Box
The fair will add some unusual, new features this year—including a presentation by one of the world’s ultimate tree huggers, and a scholarship drawing for high schoolers.
The hugger is actually a cloner: David Milarch, co-founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. The subject of a book, The Man Who Planted Trees, Milarch uses genetics and cloning to reforest areas with “champion trees”—prime specimens of very large trees from old growth forests.
Like O’Shea, the archive is based in Copemish, but works not only in Michigan, but also around North America and Britain. Milarch’s talk is at 11 a.m. on Saturday; he believes that replanting some of the planet’s largest trees can capture a lot of carbon—a key to slowing climate change.
“It’s just a fascinating topic,” Bachert said. “There will be a book signing; a lot of people are interested in meeting him.”
There will likely also be at least 100 high school seniors at the fair, each hoping to be one of 10 winners of a $500 scholarship toward their college education. They were each nominated by their science teacher, based on their strong interest in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math.
“We’re just hoping that by having them at the fair, it will introduce them to concepts that, when they follow through on their majors, they can keep in mind,” Bachert explained. “You take almost any technical field, and there’s a relationship with energy.”
O’Shea added that, aside from young people who already take climate change very seriously, awareness of the problem is increasing rapidly.
“I believe that people are really beginning to see that we have got to make some changes,” he said. “There’s even a really strong religious movement in the state about this. I can honestly say that if I walked down the street and did a poll in Traverse City, you’d probably see that 60 or 70 percent are saying, ‘Yeah, we have to do something.’
“And maybe 20 or 25 percent are actually doing something themselves,” he added.
So does that mean more people are thinking about installing solar panels—his company’s bread and butter? O’Shea said yes, but that it’s still also about the money; fortunately, renewables are becoming a good financial bet.
“With the federal tax credit, it’s about an 8 percent return on investment to buy solar right now,” he said. “Our assumption is that we are driving the cost of solar down 10 percent every year. Even without that, it would still be a better return than bank savings, CDs, and the now very fluffy, almost scary stock market.
“We’ve got to get out of this brontosaurs mentality that all of our energy comes from beneath the earth. We’d better be getting on with the program.”
Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected].