A post card from an alternative car road trip

19 Sep

Massive thanks to my guest blogger – Jen S.!   Jen lets us tag along on her trip to the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair!

Strolling around the fair in the shadows of renewable energy.

An electric vehicle charging station that doubles as a carport, wind turbines slowing rotating high above the tall white tents, a myriad of LED lights, a green dragon guarding the renewable building materials hut, Will Allen (45 minutes late, but nobody seems to mind), Chris Paine, an Amish family, a polyurt, dreadlocks, rainbow PACE flags, cars running on vegetable oil, compressed natural gas, and all electric.  This is the 22nd annual Midwest renewable energy fair in Custer, WI.  People from across Wisconsin and the Midwest convene this weekend every year to talk renewable energy and sustainability.  It draws a diverse crowd.  I am here on a date with a guy I am just getting to know.  We drove up from Madison, WI in a converted compressed natural gas 1990 Chevrolet Cavalier.  This is our first weekend together and my first time at the renewable energy fair.

This hot and sunny weekend people are talking about energy and sustainability issues in a tier above what I am accustomed to thinking about.  For instance, I think renewable energy is great, electric cars are a fantastic idea, and reducing, reusing, and recycling is the key to a more sustainable future.  I realize there are complicating factors, such as the effect of wind turbines on bat and bird populations.  I consider myself pretty well informed.  The discussions here go a few steps further.  It is a given that renewable energy and electric cars are a good idea.  Instead, these people are asking tough questions, like: What is the point of electric cars if you are taking the energy from the grid?  Solution: a solar charging station for your electric car (see picture).  The 2.3kW array of solar panels shelters the car like a garage, thus doubling as a car port.  These are innovative people.  These are extremely committed people, with a lot of hope.  What is the true cost of coal?  Is coal really better than oil?  The true cost of coal is depicted in a black and white drawing spread across the length of one of the many workshop tents (see picture).  There are cascading effects.  The air is polluted, wildlife is suffering, and people are suffering.  Everyone feels the true cost of coal.

A fair-goer contemplates an artist's rendition of the "True Cost of Coal".

It is not new to me that there are no easy solutions, but what is new to me is that this group seems undaunted.  Tomorrow’s challenges bring excitement and promise for a more sustainable future.  There is a sense that if even this small group of committed people are willing to come together for these causes, great things will happen.  This is the 22nd annual Midwest renewable energy fair and some of the attendees organized the very first one.  These, indeed, are committed people.

At 1:00 pm each day, the majority of the attendees gather in the main tent to hear the keynote speakers.  It is hot, stuffy, and crowded, but nobody seems to mind.  We wait, expecting to see Will Allen.  The introduction draws on, changes to announcements, and then we are informed that Will Allen is on his way.  He is running late.  The organizers let us in on a little secret.  They are trying to collaborate with Will Allen and his urban farming organization, Growing Power.  They are courting him to find out if he is a good fit for the Midwest renewable energy association.  I really feel like part of this community.  We don’t all know each other, but we understand each other.  We are all interviewing Will Allen together.

Will Allen arrives 45 minutes late and is received with a huge applause.  Just having had knee surgery, he walks up to stage with a cane.  The cane does not match his towering figure.  I have never seen him before, and I am shocked by how tall he is.  He was a professional basketball player once-upon-a-time and now seeing him, this makes sense.  Will Allen speaks about his Milwaukee-based organization Growing Power.  He talks and clicks through slides, almost separately.  The clicking continues as if we are watching a fast-paced screen saver linked to his photo folder.  The pictures are of green sprouts, hoop houses, handfuls of worms, all ages and races of people with their hands in the dirt, teenage boys stomping down the compost pile with huge grins on their faces, Wal-Mart executives walking through the operation in business suits, fish, concrete immediately adjacent to where food is growing, chickens, goats, ducks, bees, large groups eating family style at long picnic tables, so much soil, snow and steaming compost piles, and many, many more worms.  Midway into his talk, he informs us he has 700 slides.  Located on two acres in downtown Milwaukee, Will Allen assumed the soil was contaminated, so he decided to make his own.  In that process, he came up with a wonderful closed-loop operation that exists in the middle of a city.  The more than 50 bins of worms are fed from landfill-destined grocery store produce (Wal-Mart’s among them).  The worms make the soil that grows the crops in the hoop houses.  Compost heaped around the hoop houses keeps them warm enough to grow crops 12 months of the year.  Fish and crops grow together in a re-circulating system, termed aquaponics.  Any waste that is made is transferred to an anaerobic digester where microbes break down the material and produce energy that is then used for the continued maintenance of the system.  Wow.  He is committed to bringing real food to urban communities.  He has provided a service that has changed Milwaukee, and the idea is catching on.

A dragon guards the renewable building materials hut.

When I wasn’t attending the keynote speakers or ogling the solar car charging port, I was attending an array of workshops, mostly on food, gardening, and sustainability.  Imagine my delight when the instructors of the ‘Introduction to beekeeping’ workshop were sporting antennae and apologized for leaving their bee costumes at home.  They spoke about how conventional beekeeping can be replaced by the ancient technique of top-loading ‘beepods’ which are more harmonious for the bees and can be kept in your backyard.  In ‘urban fruit gleaning’ I learned that peach and cherry trees are right here in Madison, WI and ripe for the picking.  In the ‘ride your bike to the energy fair workshop’, a couple of dedicated bike-to-the-energy-fair bicyclers demystified multi-day bike trips.  Other workshops were in categories, such as: green building materials and alternative construction, energy conservation, economics, heating and cooling, solar electric, and rainbow’s end for the little ones.

People exhibited amazing creativity in the clean energy car show.  You had your veggie cars, your hydrogen-assist cars, your all-electric converted cars, and your compressed natural gas (CNG) cars.  The CNG car I will dwell on for a bit, because that is how we arrived at the renewable energy fair.  CNG is a cleaner alternative to gasoline and diesel, and runs about $1.30/gallon (Madison, WI).  The fuel efficiency is about the same.  So, if the environmental reasons don’t tempt you, the cost savings might.  The 1990 Chevy Cavalier that we road in was converted to a CNG car, so it now runs on either gasoline or CNG with a flip of a switch.  It is worth noting that the CNG system takes up a lot more room.  The natural gas is pressurized to 3000 psi in three high pressure tanks.  One of the tanks lies in the backseat, like a heavy, sleeping passenger, and the other two fill the trunk.  The owner makes a ‘bloop’ noise every time he presses the switch from gas to CNG.  He is very happy with the car.

Solar carport and electric vehicle charging station.

What I really took from the renewable energy fair was a sense of pride from how far we have come and a sense of promise for renewable energy development in the future.  It is common to hear forecasts of doom and gloom, but not here.  And ending on a personal note, if you have interest in the environment and sustainability, the Midwest renewable energy fair is a great place for a weekend date.  Diverse interests will give you some time apart as to not be too overwhelmed by your first weekend together.  You really get to know a guy by the workshops he chooses to attend.  I think this guy is a keeper and the renewable energy fair will be on our list next year.  And those rainbow PACE flagsPace (PAH-chay) is Italian for peace.  These flags were hung all over Italy prior to the war in Iraq and we are starting to see them in the USA, at last.  They have probably been at the renewable energy fair for a decade or more.

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