The sun has been shining for about 4.5 billion years but there aren’t that many people who have been in the solar energy business more than a quarter of a century in Australia and New Zealand. Those that have were invited to a get-together in Sydney in late March to reflect on old times and bath in a bit of glory about how far the industry has come.
The 80 or so guests who turned up on the night included developers of the first solar cells, designers of the first inverters, manufacturers, academics, installers who worked on the earliest off-grid projects and those responsible driving a set of standards for solar installations.
Selectronic sales manager Lindsay Hart qualified for entry and tells EcoGeneration about how he saw the light all those years ago.
Customers back then sought solar because they had to, he says, as they’d often bought cheap land with no access to electricity. “It was all hippies, all off-grid,” he says. “We’re going back to the 1970s to mid-1980s. It was always very difficult price-wise.”
Hart admits he viewed these early customers as a peculiarity, until one afternoon when he “got it”.
“One of those alternative lifestylers was one of my potential customers; I was trying to sell him one of my inverters. They invited me to stay for lunch at their place, very far up in northern NSW, and I had no alternatives so I said yes.”
The deal was that the property owner would have to borrow Hart’s inverter to make a smoothie, as the property was on 24 volts DC and the blender needed 240 volts.
“We went around his orchard, pulled fruit of various trees, grabbed some ice from his 24-volt freezer and then plugged in my inverter, which gave him 240 volts to run a blender, and he made a smoothie.”
As Hart took in the smoothie and the view over the Clarence Valley, he saw the possibilities of self-sufficiency. “I’ve lived off-grid since then,” he says. That was 23 years ago.
Nowadays the industry is all about business, he says, whereas in the early days “I could have gone to any of my customers and stayed there a week if I wanted to – it was based on relationships”.
The solar industry has been a little “stop-start” along the way, he says, with early welcome input in NSW in the 1980s coming from the Remote Area Power Systems scheme, which dictated equipment bought with subsidies must be Australian-made. “It really bolstered companies like [Selectronic], Latronics, Plasmatronics, SolaX and BP, who were all making products in Australia,” he says. “That gave the industry a large stimulus.”
The rise of grid-connected systems in the 1990s brought a bit of kerfuffle, he says, such as EnergyAustralia’s assertion to Muriel Watt and Ted Spooner of the University of NSW that the 3kW system they had designed for a facility at Little Bay, NSW, would “bugger up the grid”.
Back to the here and now, Hart reasons that as solar goes mainstream it will become like any business that cycles between boom and bust and experience pain every now and then, especially if government policy is not stable and standards can’t keep pace. An example is grid-connected systems, he says.
“The players who invested in the industry probably didn’t make as much money as the players who just invested in themselves – the quick-buck-style people,” Hart says.
As batteries take-off he expects the quick-buck crowd will be the ones who’ll be in trouble. “If you don’t [install storage] properly you will have more problems, for sure.”