Peter McKernan, director of PRM Engineering in high country Victoria, has installed systems in parts of the planet where solar and storage change lives.
How did you get started in solar?
I studied electronics engineering at RMIT. In my final year they received their first solar panel for evaluation. I was interested straight away. In the early ’80s I did a few solar charge systems on caravans. I used to make regulators so that I could set the final voltage to match the batteries. Early regulators only suited wet cells, they were shunt regulators with the voltage set by a reverse-biased Zener diode. They were pretty crude.
What do you like about solar?
I have always loved the solar industry and I find each installation quite satisfying. I am passionate about the environment; every panel I install offsets a bit more CO2.
How has the industry changed since you started?
The industry has moved from enthusiasts to professionals. The first step forward occurred in the late ’80s when GSES launched the first training courses for solar installers. The scale was small back then but I still use those formulas on all projects. The second step was when the Clean Energy Council started to tackle the professionalism and performance of the whole industry.
What sort of projects do you like working on best, and why?
I enjoy off-grid projects the most. We have been able to provide silent reliable energy systems in extreme locations. This work has taken me to places like Borneo, Papua New Guinea, Oman and Antarctica. In Australia I have done installations in amazing locations I did not know existed. Off-grid means no utility and far less paperwork. I sometimes take on hybrid installations and complex industrial installations. I leave straight grid-connect systems to the marketing companies.
Any frustrations with the industry? Anything that worries you about it?
Small operators find it harder to remain compliant and cannot afford the time to fulfil the endless mandatory requirements. Many smaller operators are telling me that the Approved Retailer is a step too far.
How have you seen customers’ lives changed by solar?
Every installation changes the lives of our customers for the better. All our clients are on monitored systems and periodically I check in with them so see how they are going. This is one of the most satisfying parts of the job because they are always boasting to me about how far in front they are since the system went in. Some clients cannot leave their monitoring system alone and will check in several times a day to see how the house is going without them. I have seen some very dramatic effects on some clients. In PNG we were able to provide refrigeration for vaccines on a floating clinic. That definitely had an impact. In Oman and Borneo we were able to provide light and power to areas that might never see a grid.
Have you installed much storage? How does it help with customers’ energy problems?
Almost all of my installations have included storage. I am currently commissioning a system at Licola Village in East Gippsland, with a gross storage of nearly 1,000kWh. I am still of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with sealed lead-acid gel cells, particularly when the site is off grid. I have managed to get more than 18 years’ service life out of gels; the weight and specific efficiency are not an issue to me and I like having the emergency reserve capacity that a gel battery affords when the normal DoD is set to 35%.
If you could change something about the solar industry, what would it be?
I would like to see the paperwork rationalized. We need a single online portal where all the relevant information can be entered at the pre-approval stage and then carried through to the certificate of electrical safety. It would be great to see signage rationalized and standardized. It needs to be brief and use terms that non-technical people can readily understand.