Chris Stork of K&C Stork Solar Power Consultants has been installing systems since the 1990s. A lot has changed since then, he tells EcoGeneration.
What got you hooked on solar at such an early stage?
I did my trade at Telecom [now Telstra], which is where I learned about solar. Telecom Australia was the world’s largest user of solar panels back in the early nineties. I had an interest as a teenager at school in kinetic energy, the idea of getting energy from nothing, which we all know is impossible. Solar power is as close as we’re going to get to it, as far as I’m concerned.
I never really got the opportunity to follow it through until the very early 1990s, when I worked on a solar-powered telephone exchange [in southern NSW]. Then I did a correspondence course with the Solar Energy Industry Association and never looked back. I left Telecom in 1998 and I’ve been out on my own since then. I’d gained my accreditation in 1996.
What were some of the early customers like?
The early attitude was: ‘You silly hippy, what are you doing that stuff for?’ Back then it was the alternative people who would consider solar. It was so expensive, as high as $12 per watt for solar panels back then [Ed – these days it’s about 35 cents per watt], so systems were generally very small. A 1kW system was regarded as quite large. To get people to go solar wasn’t easy; it really meant a change of lifestyle. On-grid systems back in the ’90s weren’t even thought of. It was pretty much all off-grid, camping, some stuff for [illuminating] advertising billboards. Generally, as far as domestic stuff, it was regarded as too expensive.
How did things change when grid-connected systems got the green light?
I remember putting the first grid-connected system in Powercor’s network, in mid-2000. It took months of negotiation with Powercor and it was a 1kW system – actually, it was 975W to be exact. Even at that size they were worried about how it was going to affect the network. Of course, nobody puts systems in that small any more.
Have you been back to any of your old installations to update them?
The very first one [I did] is on my brother’s house, and he only lives about four blocks from here, so I visit it regularly. We’ve changed the inverter once.
What was some of the early technology like to work with?
I can remember when the first 80W panels came onto the market, about the mid-1990s. I can remember thinking at the time, ‘Wow, 80 watts – imagine what we can do with this kind of power!’ And now we look at an 80W panel and think, yeah, whatever… It’s come a long way. It’s a very different world now.
I can remember BP toying with the idea of putting two 75W panels in one frame, to make a 150W panel. That panel was [so expensive] that people were worried about dropping it, and that would cost them a lot of money. It was with great hesitation that BP released that product.
Did you think solar would catch on to the extent it has?
Eventually. It was one of things, like colour television. I’ve just gone 50, so I can remember colour televisions first coming out. It probably took a bit longer than I thought it would [for solar to reach mainstream acceptance]. It’s been well and truly embraced now. These days I get the attitude, ‘Hey hippy, come and give me a quote!’ And I’m no hippy, trust me.
How has the standard of installations you come across changed over the years?
The installation practises and the way things are done have improved dramatically. I look at some of my older work and I think: that’s a bit ordinary. But at the time it was accepted as high-end quality. So it has improved a lot, but unfortunately there are still a lot of cowboys out there who want the money and that’s all they’re in it for. But there’s not that much money in it now; it’s a race to the bottom.
You started the “Crap Solar” Facebook page – what compelled you to do that?
I started that page to highlight some of the stuff I’m seeing on a daily basis from some of these cowboys. It started off as a place where I could put some pictures and show some people some of the rubbish, and it’s just grown into a monster.
Are you going to keep installing solar as long as the sun rises each day?
I’ve started to get a bit of arthritis in my knees from a serious motorcycle accident 30 years ago, so I don’t spend anywhere near as much time on the roof now. As my doctor says: ‘You’re 50 now – you shouldn’t be on a damned roof.’ I’m happy to let the younger guys get on the roof.
You were working with batteries way, way back on those billboard jobs … what do you make of the current “battery boom”?
The technology is there, most certainly, but I still think there’s a long way to go. There are little to no regulations for lithium storage. When the Australian standards were written it was aimed pretty much at lead-acid technology because that’s pretty much all that was around then. We now have lithium, which can be extremely volatile.
Personally what worries me is, what happens if you get a fault in a battery management or monitoring system? It’s going to start a chain reaction, and it won’t just stop at one cell like a lead-acid battery [reaction] will. It will keep going. If you get a thermal runaway you can kiss your battery bank goodbye.
Of course there are different types of lithium technology but I still think they’ve got a fair way to go yet. We’ve only scratched the surface of the potential of batteries. DC voltages of 400 for batteries is dangerous. They need restricted access. But, hey, that’s just my opinion. It’s not something I would want in my garage, put it that way.
What sort of system do you have at home?
I run a standard grid-connected system. Because I’m on the premium feed-in tariff I’m very limited to what I can do. I have 4.8kW of panels, because I have to stay under 5kW. I can’t really do much with it. If I add batteries or upgrade the system in any way I run the risk of losing my premium feed-in tariff, and I’m not prepared to do that.
But solar has been a good investment otherwise? Your energy costs are down?
Oh yeah. We don’t get a bill; we get a statement. Because we’re exporting at 68c/kWh we don’t get bills. We build up credits in summer and use them over winter.