Back in March 2017, a group of trailblazers in Australian solar gathered for the inaugural Solar Pioneers Night. The evening brought together the players in the solar industry who were at the forefront of the fledgling renewable energy sector in 1997 and earlier.

Five years later, on 18 March, 2022, more than 70 people who were involved with solar in the 1990s congregated at the Castlereagh Boutique Hotel in Sydney for the second Solar Pioneers Night, including manufacturers, installers, small business owners, marketing and salespeople, academics and researchers.

In addition to the pioneers who helped develop the Australian solar industry, Johann Fleury from Solar Cutters attended the event to represent the new wave of solar in this country. Also, Peter Watkinson and Alison Ciesla – respectively the son of the late Stuart Watkinson, founder of maximum power point tracking manufacturer AERL, and daughter of the late Professor Stuart Wenham, former director of the Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence at the University of NSW (UNSW) – were present to honour their influential fathers.

The second Solar Pioneers Night was organised by Solar Analytics relationship manager Kathleen Ryan, Global Sustainable Energy Solutions (GSES) managing director Geoff Stapleton – who were co-MCs – and Selectronic sales manager Lindsay Hart. It was an opportunity to reflect on the emerging industry as it stood in 1997.

Back then, the cumulative total of PV installed in Australia was 18.7MWp, of which 97 per cent was off-grid. Globally, the total PV installed to that point was 304MWp. 1997 was also the year grid-connect installations overtook off-grid.

At the time, there were just two Australian PV manufacturers in operation, two companies doing research and development in the planning of manufacturing plants, and eight inverter manufacturers. The industry was worth $91.5 million per year and there were approximately 840 people working in the industry, of which 50 per cent were in manufacturing.

Selectronic sales manager Lindsay Hart (left) speaking with Johann Fleury (right), from Solar Cutters, at the second Solar Pioneers Night in Sydney on 18 March, 2022. Photo: Supplied.

In 1997, PV module prices were around $8 per Wp; grid system prices were between $10 and $12 per Wp, and off-grid system prices were between $20 and $40 per Wp.

At the recent Solar Pioneers Night, guest speakers included:

  • Selectronic managing director Ken Scott on how his company transitioned from manufacturing transformers to making inverters.
  • RFI executive director Steve Jacques on how his company originally specialised in radio equipment, but moved into wholesaling solar products.
  • Stapleton on how GSES became an international company undertaking capacity building projects based on the experience of its founders as volunteers with the Solar Energy Industry Association in the 1990s.
  • Professor Martin Green from UNSW on his early PhD students, including discussing Professor Wenham, and his achievements in helping to reduce the manufacturing cost of PV systems.
  • Preeminent solar researcher Dr David Mills talking about the early days of concentrated PV, solar cookers based on using evacuated tubes, and the research undertaken in Australia on the absorptive surfaces for evacuated tubes.
  • Exemplary Energy executive director Trevor Lee on the Australian New Zealand Solar Energy Society (ANZSES), and he showed examples from 1997 editions of former industry magazine Solar Progress.
  • Michael Harris from the University of Melbourne’s Climate Energy College talked about the Alternative Technology Association (ATA) and presented sections of 1997 editions of Soft Technology, another solar magazine that was published at the time.
  • Head of business development at Solar Analytics Nigel Morris and Hart presented a discussion on the early days of Rainbow Power Company, that was founded in 1984 and remains a major player today.

The event was sponsored by Selectronic, Latronics, RFI, AERL and GSES – all companies that were operating in 1997. The evening finished with Hart interviewing Fleury to gain his perspective on the past 25 years of Australian solar.

A celebratory booklet covering the two Solar Pioneers Nights, including stories from Australian solar in the 1990s, is available to download at gses.com.au with hard copies available to purchase for $18 through the site.