Week Six (6) Blog – Free Form: The Michigan Renewable Energy Fair and a Man in Suspenders – Detroit Community-Engaged Research Program

Week Six (6) Blog – Free Form: The Michigan Renewable Energy Fair and a Man in Suspenders

About two weeks ago, on Friday 26 June, I got to attend the Michigan Renewable Energy Fair. My supervisor Jennifer and I had to leave Ferndale around 7 A.M. to reach the fair by 9/9:30 A.M. Jen was kind enough to drive us all the way to Ingham County Fairgrounds, where we roamed around listening to speakers and visiting booths. We were both exhausted by the end of the day, but it was a seriously valuable experience! At this job, I feel (hope) I’m learning more and more every day.

A (very small) section of the Ingham County Fairgrounds. We were completely surrounded by farmland!
A (very small) section of the Ingham County Fairgrounds. We were completely surrounded by farmland!

The Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association put on the Renewable Energy Fair. I’ve found that energy-related organizations have the most hilariously long titles (even my own organization, the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office). The grounds provided plenty of open space for the event – barns were used for workshops, the community hall hosted a keynote address and an arena building housed over 100 exhibit booths. DTE had a booth too, which I found especially interesting (maybe contradictory). A few weeks earlier, I met with two solar installers who told me about a plan to install solar panels at DTW. The installers had the plan in place, but DTE shut it down. I found it sort of strange, then, to see them touting their support for clean energy. Besides that, it was amazing to surround myself with people who are just as passionate (and infinitely more knowledgeable) about the environment as I am.

First, I visited a few booths, collecting a ton of business cards along the way. People are always ready and eager to hand them out, and I can see why – this fair was a major networking opportunity. I met several people in the energy business, almost all of whom Jen already knew (!!). I talked to Jason Bing with the Ecology Center, renewable technician/electrician Aaron O’Shea, Kim Walton with the MI Alternative and Renewable Energy Center, Executive Director Brindley Byrd with MEECA (MI Energy Efficiency Contractors Association) and several others. I’m realizing just how many people it takes to make things happen. In a project, everyone has their own stake and provides a particular skill or talent. Cooperation and networking are absolutely essential.

The booths were an environmentalist's dream. The exhibits ranged from the MI Public Service Commission to an ice pop stand.
The booths were an environmentalist’s dream. The exhibits ranged from the MI Public Service Commission to an ice pop stand.

After reviewing the booths and gathering intel from some solar contractors, Jen and I attended Patrick King’s keynote address. Mr. King is Vice President of Channel Sales for Suniva, a solar PV provider. The address was especially engaging when King provided time for questions. Everything was going along smoothly (most of the questions were above my head and beyond my comprehension) until one older man raised his hand. This dude sort of had it out for King, which provided amusing and unnerving results. The audience member wore some sweet suspenders, a T-shirt that read something like “There’s no Planet B” and had a large sign. You sort of knew he was going to ruffle some feathers. He asked King how the Suniva HQ is powered. King was flustered and quietly / rather awkwardly admitted that it was coal-powered. The man pressed King further, asking about the salary differential between an executive like himself and an average worker. King gave a pretty roundabout answer, so the man summarized by concluding that an executive earned about 35 times that of a worker. The audience murmured and King grew visibly annoyed, cutting the man off with, “Next question”. He clearly wanted to move on, but the man’s query revealed a stark disparity that stuck with me.

The rest of the day was hardly that dramatic, but still full of excitement. We attended talks about a PV development modeling tool, state energy policy and the latest Community Solar news. I also visited the Sierra Club’s booth – it’s very cool to see connections between our program and the real world in such a concrete way.

Besides providing me with several new contacts, the fair taught me a lot about how organizations function. Seeing Jen connect and reminisce with so many people illustrated the importance of reaching out to others in your field and being social. Events like the fair consume a day’s worth of work, but they’re irreplaceable because they draw people with similar mindsets and goals together. (For example, we saw Ann Arbor Energy Programs Analyst Nate Geisler, with whom we had met weeks earlier). It was fun to meet new people and see others we were already in touch with.

A less heartening takeaway is that, at least from what I’ve seen, organizations can also have very conflicting interests and accomplishing things takes a great deal of teamwork. My brief stop at the non-profit and business worlds’ intersection emphasized the financial and political side of things. Still, seeing the booths and their welcoming attitude toward younger people like myself gave me hope. It was enlightening and encouraging to meet people whose passions align with my own. I feel luckier than ever to know fellow DCBRP students.

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