On Saturday, upwards of 700 people gathered under a cloudy September sky in the vicinity of Anchor Park, Pioneer Park and the Lewis and Clark Library for the seventh Annual Montana Clean Energy Fair. This annual event is put on by the Montana Renewable Energy Association (MREA), and this was the second year the free event was held in Helena.

According to Christopher Borton, fair coordinator and MREA board member, the initial idea for the Montana Clean Energy Fair was driven by a desire to educate the public on clean energy and the options available to them in Montana. Having the event be a fun, educational and family-friendly fair seemed like the best idea. The fair is a traveling event and has been held in Butte, Missoula and Helena so far.

The Montana Clean Energy Fair kicked off on Friday with a Battery Based Inverter Training Workshop presented by Lones Tuss of Outback Power. The workshop focused on Outback Power Systems battery-based inverter technology, along with balance of system components, web-based monitoring and its new grid-tied three phase inverter product.

The main fair event began Saturday morning with the third annual Helena Sun Run — an event that raises money for installing solar panels on nonprofits and public buildings in Helena. The 5K run, 1-mile walk or bicycle parade began at 9 a.m. at Anchor Park. This year’s run aimed at raising funds to install a solar system at Carroll College.

As runners finished their final leg of the race, people began milling about taking in the clean energy vendors and workshops. The 13 workshops featured throughout the day covered a variety of topics including solar, wind, alternative fuel vehicles, energy efficiency and other clean energy technologies.

“There was a good balance between different perspectives,” said Andrew Valainis, executive director for MREA.

One of the workshops that Valainis was most excited for was the Citizen Advocacy Training, which was new to the fair this year. The training, facilitated by Montana Conservation Voters, was designed to prepare citizens to engage in advocacy in different venues, including earned media, lobbying and engagement with decision makers in key venues like the Montana Legislature. The training discussed different options available for engagement and focused on best practices, messaging and presentation.

“It was a unique opportunity for individuals to learn how they can personally get involved in renewable energy advocacy,” said Valainis.

Besides the workshops, the fair also featured 20 clean energy vendors/exhibitors to engage with and ask questions to. Dan Brandborg, owner of SBS Solar out of Hamilton, is an annual participant in the fair. Brandborg’s business is a solar electric systems integrator that has served western Montana for over 30 years.

“Of all renewable energy, solar gets 90 percent of the attention because it’s so cost effective,” said Brandborg.”

He admitted that he enjoys attending the annual fair and getting to converse with people who have recently been turned onto solar.

“Solar is going crazy around the world right now,” said Brandborg. “The U.S. is growing with its use but we still play a relatively small part.”

“Solar is part of the solution to our climate change woes,” Brandborg went on to state. “We’re not going to change the world overnight but we can start making a difference.”

Saturday afternoon Brandborg also led a workshop on batteries and energy storage. He discussed grid residential battery systems and their integration with solar systems.

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Urban Electric Bikes was a new vendor to the fair this year and one that Valainis and Borton were especially excited to include. According to Borton, electric bikes are extremely popular in many other countries right now, but they have yet to take off in the United States. According to a 2016 report from Navigant Research, global e-bike sales are expected to reach $24.3 billion annually by 2025.

A similar bike to the one Urban Electric produces was raffled off as a grand prize at the end of the fair Saturday. Up for raffle was X-Treme’s Trail Maker Elite Electric Bike. It was valued at $1,000 and is a lithium battery powered bicycle that runs on a 300 watt zero resistance rear hub motor. The bike can travel up to 20 miles per hour for up to 20 miles on a single charge.

Along with the vendors was an electric car show featuring the Nissan LEAF, Chevrolet Volt and the Chevrolet Spark. Children’s activities were also held throughout the day including solar cooking, recycled arts projects and model solar car assembly and racing.

Ultimately, MREA’s hope with the annual Clean Energy Fair is to break down the knowledge barriers and provide a learning opportunity for the public.

“It’s a unique opportunity to have actual solar tech installers on site and for people to be able to come to understand how the industry works,” said Valainis. “Our goal is to engage as many Montanans as we can. The education piece is paramount to getting people more motivated about clean energy. You can come away with a roadmap on how to get solar installed on your home or business. We really try to connect all of the dots on that.”

“Those of us who promote clean energy will continue to do so,” said Borton. “There is no letup in sight on clean energy in the world. The technology is going full bore and we’re really excited about that.”

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