MREA Energy Fair 2017, Custer, WI

by Ben N on June 19, 2017


(Editor’s note: Unforeseen circumstances prevented this post from being immediately written after the fair. This post was written 7/1/2017, but posted as though it was directly after the June 16 to 18, 2017 Fair.)

I gotta say, the ENERGY FAIR WAS AMAZING!!!

And to be clear, I wasn’t blown away by attendance, but rather by ENTHUSIASM. There are some GREAT people doing AMAZING work out there, and the Energy Fair is one of those places where you can talk DIRECTLY to those people, whether it’s at one of the many professional presentations, at a vendor booth, or just over a beer…

I headed up to the Energy Fair this past Thursday with my G.E. Elec-Trak in tow on a trailer. I showed off the tractor and an electric mini-bike conversion in the clean transportation car show. One thing that made me feel more like a part of the event than ever before was that I was there the previous weekend, installing electric vehicle charging stations. I also made it up in time for the kickoff Thursday evening dinner, which included a moving memorial to energy pioneer and HOME POWER publisher, Richard Perez.

IMG_5240The Car Show was amazing! We made plenty of good use of the car chargers, as we were packed with over 30 Teslas, 2 Chevy Bolts, (the first time I’ve ever seen one in person,) plenty of Volts, Leafs, Focus Electric, a Mitsubishi iMiev (not mine) and even a Spark EV. My buddy, Ryland, was showing off his home-brew Electric Motorcycle, and there were electric bicycle vendors there as well. Saturday evening featured JB Straubel, co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of Tesla.IMG_5253 He had a great keynote, although I had to see that from the far back end of a VERY full tent. The Tesla enthusiasts did a great job organizing a rally that day with a special “Tesla Only” parking area and some fun group photos. Personally, I love how Teslas seem to have a pretty high ratio of custom license plates. I made sure to snap photos of a few fun ones.

For me, camping at the “Back 40” campground has also become part of the experience. This campground is nearby and run by the fair. Many volunteers, vendors, and presenters stay there, often huddled at the “Coffee Bean” trailer early in the morning for caffeine and conversation. I love the motley array of campsites, ranging from walk-in tents, to a Geo Metro with a rope slammed in the door and a tarp thrown over the rope, to a 50 foot converted Greyhound bus. I also saw a strange modern yurt that appeared to be designed especially for festival use.

IMG_5263My friend and fellow Solar-Powered Electric Car Driver, Bruce, was at the camp-ground with his home-made camping trailer. “Campy McCampface” is a foam trailer built on a custom aluminum frame, designed for light weight to be towed by an electric car. Bruce gave me a tour and I got to see the details of how he built it. With this being one of his first trips out, Bruce also let me know of a few improvements he already had in mind.

The Energy Fair is also about people, whether that’s old friends or new ones. I got to see plenty of the usually suspects, including Ryland with his electric motorcycle, Chris from Honda Motor Works, and Jeff Lindow, our favorite experimental archeologist and moonshiner!

After my Sunday presentation, a regular attendee, Ivan, gave me a hand carrying some of my items back up to where I was showcasing my tractor. He’s a bit older and I noticed him getting winded. He told me how he’s going through chemotherapy, and how crummy it makes him feel, but also how glad he was to be at the Fair. I could only commiserate. I saw the first-hand effects of chemo when my father-in-law went through multiple treatments. After all that misery, cancer got him anyways. Back at the booth, I had a nice long chat with Ivan. When we parted ways, I said “See you next year!” I was glad to hear Ivan say that he absolutely would be back.

IMG_5283We have to put a few checks in the “New Friends” column as well. Also in the car show area was a DIY Pop-Up Camper! Being a camping trailer builder myself, I had to check this one out! I talked with the owner just a little bit. (Was it John?) The trailer had a clever design. It’s basically just plywood on a Harbor Freight trailer, but folds from fairly small to full standing height and what looked like a Queen-sized bed! You can see more of the trailer on his blog:

Probably the most interesting person who I met this year is James. He showed up on a three-wheeled electric bicycle called an ELF. He’s modified his quite a bit and it tows a bicycle-sized pop-up trailer, covered with solar panels. During the day, the solar charges the batteries for the electric motor, and at night the lid pops up and he sleeps inside the trailer.
All day, James preached Love and Peace and Solar Power. James has travelled all over the country in his solar/human-powered vehicle, including to places like Standing Rock, wherever he can be of service.

IMG_5280I probably only really talked to James for about 15 minutes the whole weekend. When I left, I got a BIG HUG, in a way that was LOVING and BROTHERLY, along with words of peace. I’m not the type that goes to church regularly, but I’m a believer. I’m a big believer in what we all can do, especially when we all work together to do good. I try to do what I can, teaching, promoting, creating good things. Standing in front of me was a man who literally had LOVE tattooed on his face, and his works reflected it as well. Somehow, it just made me feel that perhaps I could and should be doing even a little more… Although probably not involving tattoos.

On Sunday, I gave my one and only presentation. Mine followed the DIY Portable Solar on a Balcony presentation, which I got to watch. Diane Cheklich did a great presentation that anyone could follow on designing small portable solar systems. Her systems have been used for both apartment-dwelling (charging her electric bike) all the way to powering audio equipment for walking tours. As an indie film-maker, she based her portable solar system in a case typically used for video and photography equipment. I got a kick out of the fact that I instantly recognized the exact case. (Nope, not a Pelican. It was a Seahorse!) See her good work at:

IMG_5271I was really looking forward to giving my presentation and was glad to see that I had a full tent! I had the projector hooked up to my iPad to show off photos from my Solar Garage Project. I launched right into the specs of my solar system and why I chose products such as those by Enphase and Iron Ridge and the advantages of finding local suppliers such as Werner Electric. I also brought lots of props with me, including pieces of the racking system, a grid-tie inverter, and even a custom demo piece of my roof. I wanted people to be able to see and feel these things in person. It’s easy to show photos and perhaps give an explanation, but I was really hoping to convey the EXPERIENCE of how I built my own solar system. People seemed to like my presentation. I got plenty of positive responses, including finding the world’s greatest evaluation form that accidentally got mixed in with my papers.

Some of the people who watched my presentation wanted MORE! I promised that I’d make a video based on my presentation. Here’s that video. I’m sorry that it doesn’t include my improvisational stories, sound effects, or props, but hopefully it includes the information that you are looking for.

The end of the Energy Fair is always bitter-sweet. It always comes too fast, and then there’s the good-bye’s, the packing up, and a bit of sunburn and fatigue. But it’s tired and sun-burned in a good way. It always feels like I’ve done something good for a few days.

Perhaps that’s the greatest appeal of the Energy Fair – being with other people who are just there to do some good. Whether you’re the CTO of a world-changing car company, a street-preacher with LOVE written all over his face, or just some guy who likes to build things and blog about it. We’re all just there to do some good.

Like I said to Ivan, “See you next year.”



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