Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

EcoFair organizers hope green catches on

by Chris Schultz

July 21, 2011

Elkhorn — Brian Mathis of New Berlin and Ben Nelson of Oconomowoc didn’t wait for Detroit to go green.

They built their own electric vehicles.

They showed off their handiwork at the second annual EcoFair 360 at the Walworth County Fairgrounds on July 9.

Among the purposes of the fair, which ran from July 8 to 10, was to provide ways for individuals and businesses to to reduce their carbon footprints and reduce energy costs.

It touted an open-air display of the alternative fuel vehicles.

It included exhibits of alternative energy generation: solar, wind, biomass; examples and demonstrations of organic gardening and information on green business money-saving ideas.

Transforming hydrocarbon-powered vehicles to a battery-powered lifestyle has an appeal, especially when the price of gas is on an upward trend, Mathis said.

Mathis, who just left the U.S. Air Force after 20 years of service, dropped an electric motor into an old Chevy S-10 pick up truck.

Changing from gasoline to battery power took just three days, he said.

When the S-10 body rusts out, it will take about three days or less to transfer the battery power plant to a new body, he said.

He said he’s since upgraded from acid-lead batteries to lithium.

“I have not bought gas since December,” said Mathis, who used to do maintenance on fighter jets.

He said the old S-10 is now his principle mode of transportation. The electric motor can get the truck up to 94 mph and has an operating range of 80 miles.

He drove the truck to EcoFair from New Berlin, and planned to drive it home that evening.

Nelson said he originally wanted to be a good consumer and buy his electric car off the lot.

He had his eyes on a Nissan Leaf, but, he said, a dealer told him the waiting list was two years long.

Not willing to wait that long, Nelson said he went to the Internet and began researching electric cars.

Using that information, Nelson dropped an electric forklift motor into a 1996 Geo Metro body.

The car also has an LP gas generator, which makes it a hybrid. It uses the LP gas-powered motor to recharge its batteries while it’s on the go.

Nelson also converted a Kawasaki motorcycle to battery power.

Both vehicles use their original transmissions, he said.

He said after he converted his vehicles, he decided that to better understand the theories behind battery power, he should take an electronics course at the local community college.

“That’s right, I did it backwards,” Nelson said. “I built the car and motorcycle and then took the electronics course.”

While Mathis and Nelson demonstrated the do-it-yourself spirit of some ecology-minded citizens, EcoFair organizers are wondering whether they’re getting their message out to the public.

Last year’s fair, the first, drew about 2,000 visitors, said Catherine McQueen of Delavan.

McQueen and her husband, Fritz Kreiss, co-coordinators of the fair.

The fair is organized by Eco-Vision Sustainable Learning Center of Lake Geneva.

McQueen said organizers were hoping to draw 4,000 this year.

Final attendance figures were not available as of deadline Tuesday.

“Our main mission is showing that sustainability is attainable and fun,” McQueen said. “What better way to do it than in a fair setting?”

Steps were taken to make the fair more accessible. Entrance fees were cut.

Last year, it cost $15 a day to visit EcoFair. This year it was $7 a day.

And EcoFair 360 strived to be business and user-friendly, McQueen said.

She said EcoFair 360 embraced entrepreneurship and business.

“Green also means money,” she said. “We want our vendors to go home happy.”

McQueen said this year’s fair had about the same number of local speakers and exhibitors as last year.

The exhibit buildings, which housed most of the exhibits and vendors, appeared busy, lined with the curious and ecologically savvy.

But the Walworth County Fairgrounds are huge and visitors to EcoFair 360 were widely dispersed, making it hard to judge how well the fair was received in its second year.

McQueen said the fair wants to show business that it is possible to “make money and be gentle to the planet at the same time.”

Still, organizers were concerned that EcoFair is not generating quite the buzz among the public and businesses as hoped.

“Maybe it’s the economy. Or the community isn’t interested,” McQueen said.

“But we’re such optimists, we can’t believe that,” she added.