The world’s largest renewable energy and sustainable living fair happens in our tiny town of Custer, Wisconsin. The Energy Fair is an event we never miss – seriously, it was the one blackout date we had when planning our wedding. You can imagine how that conversation went over with my mother. Anyway, we love it, and before the littles came along, we used to spend every waking hour of that weekend volunteering, learning, and playing with our friends. This year was the 28th annual fair, and my 12th year attending. After all these years, even I have asked myself why I keep going.

Fair Pan 1Why do I continue to love it more each year? There are lots of reasons, but the most important ones for me are all about the personal rejuvenation and, er…. um, energy, I get just from being around 20,000 people who are super excited about renewable energy and learning new and better ways to live sustainably. It fills me up for the work I’ll do in the coming year. It gives me new ideas and ways to step up my own sustainability game. It’s fun.

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Bicycle-powered main stage performance by Stanton West
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Solar-powered golf cart transports Fair staff and volunteers

One of the random awesome things I learned about at this year’s Energy Fair are called soap nuts. Soap what?!, you ask. Yes, you heard me right. Nuts that are soap. And, once they’re done being soapy can go into your garden or compost to help deter pests.  We’ve been using them for the past few months and I’m thrilled to report they work, they’re amazing, and you can get some of your own from the Soap Nut Lady. I don’t get paid to say this. They’re just great. Just like the Energy Fair. (Like how I worked us back around?)

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I always leave inspired and optimistic about the future; which isn’t always easy when you’re hanging out with a bunch of environmentalists. The Energy Fair is different. People here are at the cutting edge of renewable energy and sustainable living solutions – either creating them, learning and teaching about them, or buying and selling them. They’re redesigning their own cars, building their own homes, creating companies that serve a common good, or just taking baby steps to begin learning about how to get started in their own way.

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Nick Hylla, the MREA Board of Directors, and MREA members at the annual membership dinner.

This year, I learned the most listening to the Director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) speak at their membership and donor dinners. I suppose this is as it should be. MREA Executive Director, Nick Hylla, wasn’t just excited because he finally got Tesla’s chief technical officer and co-founder, JB Straubel, to attend as one of their keynote speakers. Straubel is worshiped like a deity in this crowd, by the way. People stumbled over each other and actual rock star Cory Chisel (who was there as the evening entertainment) just to get a chance to shake Straubel’s hand and gush about their own electric car rebuild. But, I digress.

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Crowds overflowed the mega-tent at J.B. Straubel’s keynote address
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That’s Nick  Hylla on the right, JB Straubel shaking hands with another admirer, and Mark Klein on the left (MREA Board of Directors)

What Nick shared with us that still has me thinking was a bird’s eye view of the rapid progress being made in the transition to clean, renewable energy and the imminent future he sees in powering electric cars with photovoltaic (PV) energy. He outlined the MREA’s vision for having us all “Driving on Sunshine” in the very near future. Like right now if we want to. Electric cars have proven themselves as a safe and affordable alternative, and technology is improving to allow longer and longer drive distances before recharge is needed. Meanwhile, the cost of installing solar electric systems continues to decrease over time. Nick declared to this well informed audience that they would have all called him a liar two years ago if he had told them what it was going to cost to install solar now. In just two years, the cost has decreased by 50%  (from $5 per watt installed to an average of $2.50 per watt). The crowd nodded in agreement, they would have called him a liar back then. And this incredible progress has been made in an era when state and federal support has been spotty at best and directly obstructionist at worst.

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Nick went on to describe the very real potential for a nationwide transition to electric transportation and advanced energy storage: All powered by clean energy. A future that’s not only possible, but is already happening. Yeah, I have goosebumps all over again. We not only can do this, we are doing it, and the MREA and The Energy Fair are lighting the way.

Cool, right? So yeah, I’ll be there next year, and I highly recommend you attend too. Whatever your knowledge or interest level, there is something for everyone. Even if, like me, you’re mostly there to re-energize yourself.

And, of course, you don’t have to wait until next summer to get involved. The MREA works all year long to train installers, host public educational events, and advocate for smart renewable energy programs. You can Become a Member and/or Donate to the MREA to support their work throughout the year.


End note: The MREA  launched a second energy fair in St. Paul, Minnesota for the first time this year. We weren’t able to attend, but we’re hoping to make it to both next year if they do it again. Can’t make it to either event, but you want to get involved and support the cause?  Become a Member and/or Donate to the MREA.

Save the Date for The Energy Fair next year in Custer, WI:  June 15-17, 2018 

And, as a little treat for reading all this way, here are some old photos of Nick Hylla I found in our archives. Long before he became the MREA’s Director, he taught for Wisconsin’s K-12 Energy Education Program and was a “hardcore volunteer.”

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Nick Volunteering at the Fair’s annual pancake breakfast