August 20, 2008

Current and Best Practices: Renewable Energy Fairs

Beginning in April and running through September, you can find a renewable energy fair. Whether it’s the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair (MREF), going on for almost 20 years at the Summer Solstice, and billed as “the world’s largest renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable living educational event of its kind,” or “Green Makes $en$e” in…

Beginning in April and running through September, you can find a renewable energy fair. Whether it’s the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair (MREF), going on for almost 20 years at the Summer Solstice, and billed as “the world’s largest renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable living educational event of its kind,” or “Green Makes $en$e” in Elkins, West Virginia in April, these fairs are two or three-day festivals on renewable energy, sustainable building and agriculture, exhibits, workshops, hands-on demos, vendors, live music and entertainment, and children’s activities—something for everyone.

I ‘traveled’ to three renewable energy fairs: the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, known as MREF, held this year at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Headquarters, the ReNew the Earth Institute in Custer, Wisconsin from June 20-22nd; SolarFest, held in Tinmouth, Vermont on July 11-13, and the Texas Renewable Energy Roundup and Green Living Fair, coming up on September 26-28 in Fredericksburg, Texas. Though the focus of these (and other fairs) remains on education and promotion of renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable living, there are unique facets at each fair.

According to Amy Heart, Programs Director for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, the MREF is considered the first and largest renewable energy fair in the U.S. “A number of individuals who live in central Wisconsin answered a call from Home Power magazine nearly 20 years ago to bring together citizens interested and concerned about renewable energy and sustainable living,” said Heart. “The organizers and attendees have been building and growing the event ever since.”

It’s not surprising that attendance at these fairs is on the rise. “We continue to grow every year,” said MREF’s Heart. “Our 2008 attendance numbers were up 15% from 2007. I think this can be attributed to the main stream attention of climate change and rising energy costs.”

SolarFest, in Tinmouth, Vermont, which just celebrated its 14th year, has seen a steady annual increase of about 15-20 percent, say festival coordinators, Robin and Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman.

But the Renewable Energy Roundup and Sustainability Fair in Fredericksburg, Texas, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in ’09, has a different opinion.

“The TREIA/TXSES Energy Roundup attendance has not been a straight line of growth each year,” said fair coordinator, Kathryn Houser, “even though we’ve been holding our Renewable Energy Roundup over the same weekend in September for the past nine years. Our attendance has been affected by a variety of unforeseen circumstances like Hurricane Rita, or the hugely popular ‘Austin City Limits’ music festival, scheduled for the same weekend this year as our fair, or San Antonio’s City Public Service hosting their own green fair two weekends later.”

Because the Fairs are mostly a regional event, fairgoers typically travel some distance, which may not have been an issue, until this year. With escalating gas prices, would attendance be down?

“I think high gas prices are offset by people’s higher interest in learning how to cope with the coming energy economy,” said SolarFest’s Robin and Melissa. “We’re seeing just under 50 per cent Vermonters this year (down from 70 percent in other years). Attendees are from, in descending order: New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and then other scattered states – NJ, FL, AZ, IL, IN, OH, OR, and Canada. Though our fair is already over, we don’t think attendance was down, despite high gas prices.”

“That’s one of the ironies of our fair,” said Houser. “Fredericksburg is 80 miles from Austin, 70 miles from San Antonio, and 200 miles from Houston. Visitors to the Roundup are passionate about being there; many come every year, and I think they will bite the bullet to make the drive. Volunteers, however, will be more challenging than ever this year, I suspect.”

The majority of MREF’s attendees are from around the Midwest. “We’re certainly seeing more individuals staying closer to home as travel gets more expensive,” said Heart, “but we’re always happy to see the excited folks from around the nation, and world, make the yearly trip to Custer.” In fact, Heart asserts that even as gas prices increase, “we find it actually drives (no pun intended) more people to our Energy Fair. Attendees realize that the few dollars they may spend in getting to our event, may end up saving them hundreds (and saving the planet) in the future.”

In addition to workshops, hands-on activities and vendors, fairs have speakers…from famous keynoters to local celebrities. “We’re lucky,” said Heart, “as MREF’s reputation precedes us, and a number of the clean energy advocates are aware of the MREA’s Energy Fair, and the great crowds it attracts. We usually start in July or August of the previous year trying to get keynote presenters for the coming spring.”

All three fair organizers agreed that keeping the Fair’s date as consistent as possible was key to helping achieve a successful event.

“The date for the MREF is always scheduled around the summer solstice,” said Heart. “It’s become such a well-established date, the third weekend in June for our visitors and for our vendors. It’s become a natural base for our Fair.”

SolarFest organizers have held their event on the second weekend in July since 2002, and typically their vendor booths are at capacity. “Consistency is important to us, especially for planning purposes,” assert Robin and Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman. “Our vendors get a fair amount of business by exhibiting at the fair, in part because they know when SolarFest is, but also because booth fees are very reasonable.”

“Folks know to begin to look for the Roundup in the Fall and the veterans book their lodging early,” asserts Houser. “In fact, we have vendors who make an entire year’s worth of sales during the Roundup, according to their marketing staff at the event. We generally fill the booth spaces, although it fluctuates. About 40 percent of the vendors have been every year, from the first. Last year, we had 70 percent new vendors. Overcoming Hurricane Katrina took two full years to rebuild attendance.”

SolarFest organizers tend to think about their keynoters during the Vermont Winter. “Some names are booked farther in advance,” said Robin. “We also don’t offer much of an honorarium, so that plays into things. People who speak here give it to us basically as a gift.”

“We don’t focus too much on ‘top’ names or heavy egos who require honorariums,” agreed Houser. “This is a fund-raising event for the both the Texas Solar Energy Society (TXSES) and the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association (TREIA), so potential keynoters know they’re coming for the advertisement and for expenses. We try to hit each of the three areas of interest (renewable energy, green building, sustainable agriculture), one per day. Several years National Public Radio in San Antonio supported us by bringing in some of the national hosts from environmental shows. For the last three years, I’ve worked a deal with Chelsea Green Pubs to book one of their relevant authors on tour during the Roundup, and that person is then my Saturday keynote. I make keynote arrangements at the first of the year for the late Fall event.”

Summer energy fairs require year-long planning and coordination and countless hours of volunteer efforts.

“Some of MREF’s biggest challenges have been trying to grow and adapt as interest increases,” said Heart. “Our Board of Directors constantly re-evaluate the successes and challenges of the Energy Fair. Specifically, the Board has looked at long-term location needs to meet the growing needs while staying true to the mission of the MREA.”

“The biggest challenge for SolarFest,” said President and volunteer coordinator, Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman, “is the fact that we’re a non-profit, with a predominantly volunteer staff and organization to run it. There is so much else we would like to do to deliver energy education, but all of our energy goes into putting on this three-day event. If it rains, we get hit in the wallet, as about 35 per cent of our annual organizational budget comes from the ticket sales. However, since we found our permanent home in Tinmouth and can invest in the site, our second-biggest challenge (a site that works) has been blessedly resolved.”

Roundup’s Houser agrees. “Just making it through the five days that we live in Fredericksburg,” she laughs. “Russel (Smith) and I are both so exhausted by Sunday night, we can barely talk. Finding crew volunteers willing to travel to the fair site has always been a challenge. Keeping well-trained trail bosses (fair leaders) from year to year has not been difficult, however, which is a big surprise. I’ve heard families say this event is their reunion each year; they come for the camaraderie of other families.

Some big milestones will occur in 2009: the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair will celebrate its 20th anniversary, and the Texas Renewable Energy Roundup and Green Living Fair will celebrate its 10th.

“We’re so fortunate and excited to be planning our 20th anniversary Energy Fair,” said Heart. “The success of the event, and the growth of renewable energy, is all because of our founders, board members, members and our supporters, to whom we’re planning a way to thank them all. Stay tuned for lots of surprises, and a big celebration! Mark your calendars now, and join us.”

“Honestly, I continue to be amazed at the Roundup’s popularity, and that it’s been a consistently solid revenue stream for both TXSES and TREIA,” declared Houser. Knowing Kathryn, I’d say a huge part of that financial success is directly attributable to her taught reigns on the numbers. In addition to the Roundup’s 10th, it’s also TREIA’s 25th. “Both of these deserve some significant attention,” he says. “Stay tuned.”

“The pleasant surprise for us,” said Melissa and Robin, “is that SolarFest keeps growing and attracting new volunteer energy. We think it’s because people are hungry for what SolarFest offers, which is not merely education, entertainment, or opportunity, but more a living, breathing and happy example of a healthy community.”

For a rundown of energy fairs across the U.S., visit Home Power’s website, and look for the February/March 2008 issue #123 of their magazine.

For a more comprehensive state-by-state listing, visit the Build it Solar webiste