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Pittsburgh summer concert series relies on sun's energy to run equipment

| Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, 11:21 p.m.
The band Lee Robinson & Iska performs Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, as part of the ninth annual Solar Concert Series at Buhl Community Park in the North Side.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
The band Lee Robinson & Iska performs Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, as part of the ninth annual Solar Concert Series at Buhl Community Park in the North Side.
Lee Robinson performs with his band Lee Robinson & Iska on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, as part of the ninth annual Solar Concert Series at Buhl Community Park in the North Side.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Lee Robinson performs with his band Lee Robinson & Iska on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, as part of the ninth annual Solar Concert Series at Buhl Community Park in the North Side.

Lee Robinson thought he'd seen everything in the Pittsburgh jazz scene during his 35-year career.

Robinson has played at venues around the world, but until Wednesday, he had never performed a set fully powered by solar energy.

“It felt fresh,” he said. “I expected some drop-downs in power, but it was good from what I could see and feel.”

Robinson's band, Lee Robinson & Iska, performed Wednesday as part of the ninth annual Solar Concert Series at Buhl Community Park in the North Side. The series is sponsored by the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and the Saturday Light Brigade, which is housed in the museum.

The Saturday Light Brigade produces a weekly public radio program with adult and youth performances.

“The idea is to serve the people in the community with a wide range of music, to understand the technology being used here and to enjoy each other's company,” said Larry Berger, the brigade's executive director.

What has made the concert series unique is its use of solar energy, Berger said.

“In the early days, I'm not ashamed to admit that we may have had an extension cord leading to power just in case,” he said.

Since last year, however, the concert series' capabilities have increased with help from ZeroFossil, a Munhall-based energy outfitter. The company builds solar-powered generators used to power a number of events, according to founder Steven Kovacik.

“We can service something as small as the Solar Concert Series or something as big as the Thrival music festival (in Rankin) next month,” he said. “It's pretty wild.”

ZeroFossil serviced 75 events in 2014 and 125 in 2015. It will power 150 this year, Kovacik said.

ZeroFossil employee Jake Ward has set up most of the concerts this summer. First, he lays out 50- and 100-watt solar panels that connect to ZeroFossil's Juicebox Solar Generator. The generator then cleans and dispenses the energy into three formats: 120VAC, 12VDC and 5VUSB. The energy is stored in a battery, which powers the sound board and instruments.

“It's using a little bit of power since the band is playing, but it's also generating power at the same time,” Ward said.

ZeroFossil's West Homestead facility is powered by solar energy, Kovacik said, so the generators are constantly charging. They can be used even when its cloudy or dark.

Jeanine Murch, 36, has been to nearly every concert in the series this summer with her 4-month-old son, Travis, and her dog, Freddie Pickles.

“I'm all for the environment,” Murch said, “so it's really cool to see it in action and to see that light can power the whole band.”

Some people still doubt the capabilities of solar energy, Kovacik said, but with the success of his business, he believes that should no longer be in doubt.

“If we can run a business in Western Pa. from the sun, you can certainly run your house with it,” he said.

Phillip Poupore is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7820 or ppoupore@tribweb.com.

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