Last weekend, while many Vermonters were celebrating one of the summer's first dry spells (finally!), others were tucked away at Forget-Me-Not farm in Tinmouth attending the 19th
Annual SolarFest, a lively mix of music, kids activities, educational workshops and solar exhibitors that attracted those on the grid, off the grid and everywhere in between.
SolarFest began 19 years ago as merely a dream — literally.
Nance Dean, SolarFest’s founder, dreamt one night of close friends walking over
a hill on her farm to a performance stage. Dean lived off the grid, so the
stage was completely solar powered. She shared her dream with artsy pals and
made it happen. Patty Kenyon, the current managing director of SolarFest,
recalled this history with me before my exploration of SolarFest began.
According to Kenyon, Dean’s first SolarFest was primarily a
music and arts festival powered by the sun.
Indeed, at this year's Fest, bands such as Kina Zorel, Jesse Dee, Melodeego, the Skatalites, Max Creek, DJ Sinna-G and Sparkplug lit up the stage — an "outstanding lineup of entertainment," said SolarFest President Steve Goldsmith (pictured, below, with daughter Sarah Goldsmith.)
But today, while performances still entertain guests, solar education seems to trump the beats coming from the main stage. Although the performances brought quite a crowd this
year, Goldsmith reports that the majority of the
attendees — almost 60% — likely came to learn from exhibitors and workshops.
“Our 2012 survey indicated that just over half of the people
filling out the survey said that education was the primary reason for attending
the festival," Goldsmith explained.
And there was plenty to see.
Susan Bruhl and her daughter Martha Bruhl (photo, left) were in
attendance for the first time and competed in SolarFest’s first “Trashion
Show.” They designed a unique pair of overalls from a variety of recycled
resources. The Bruhls, who live
in New Haven, use solar and wind power for their home and recently leased two
electric vehicles. Susan’s husband, Taborri, runs a blog on solar energy. The
Bruhls thought this would be a perfect place to share information.
“He’s been trying to figure out how you communicate to every-day people that you can do this, too. You don’t have to be a hippy or even feel
like a hippy in order to live this lifestyle,” said Susan.
This year also featured many new SolarFest exhibitors, keeping people
busy on the hills and inside workshop tents. And it hosted Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT), keynote speaker, Ben Cohen, as well as the 350.org Climate Camp, and its first
trademarked SolarFest Mini Maker Fair.
Goldsmith said Cohen spoke Friday about his Stampede Campaign that's currently covering the nation’s bills with stamps that say “Keep Money Out of
Politics.” Cohen also brought his Amend-O-Matic StampMobile, which he and a team of artists designed. I walked by a half dozen people having
their bills stamped, free of charge.
Aaron Rubin, a NYC native, has been driving the StampMobile (photo, left) up and down the East Coast for the past few months. Although the message fit
the ideologies of many people at the Fest, the massive truck was far from solar
powered, or even sustainable.
Past the StampMobile, a half dozen food vendors and a water
station was the SolarFest Mini Maker Faire, produced by Doug Webster,
who has also developed the Champlain Mini Maker Faire at Shelburne Farms.
Maker Mike Debrowski dragged his trailer from
Connecticut with a massive, mirrored solar cooker he built with a bunch of
friends in 1968. It produces 1500 watts — similar to a microwave oven.
He uses it at home to can tomatoes, and cook hotdogs and frozen pizza.
Across from Debrowski was a 600-watt power supply in the
form of R2-D2 (photo, below right). Jon Spencer, product manager of altE store in Massachusetts, was
not technically in the Maker Fair but was asked to showcase his creation
anyway. AltE, a company that sells solar panels and supplies, sold the panels
that power the festival's main stage.
Among all of the new exhibitors were many Solar Fest
Dave Bonta, Founder and President of USA Solar Store, has
been an exhibitor in the same spot for 12 years. He spent 15 minutes showing me
different types of PV panels and solar water heaters. Many crowded around to
Bonta told me that attendance has dropped since 2009 but that it has no
connection to the music.
“Solar isn’t a great novelty anymore. It’s really becoming
quite mainstream. And once it becomes mainstream it's like, 'oh yeah, I went to
SolarFest, I learned a few things and I don’t need to go back.' Usually at that
point, they are ready to make a purchasing decision,” said Bonta.
Though some vendors may have been put off by the loud music earlier in the day, by this point vendors and exhibitors looked grateful for the soundtrack as they packed
up their tents and gear.
In fact, even after three days, everyone looked powered up.
“We provide something for everyone," said Goldsmith. "So if you want to spend
the day learning things and the night dancing, or if you want to spend the
weekend listening to great music, or want to come out and buy a renewable
energy system, or jewelry, clothing or a greenhouse, we're the place to go to."