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Super-charged solar time travel: a brief history of solar and storage in Australia

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On February 14, solar advocacy group Solar Citizens will hold a three day National Action summit for clean energy. Here, solar veteran and entrepreneur Nigel Morris recounts the major milestones he has witnessed over his 34 year journey into solar power.

In 1982, like many high school students I was shown a terrifying black and white film of what to do in case of nuclear attack at school. The cold war was still alive and for the very first time the stark reality that energy is powerful and has a price hit me – I’m 15 years old.

1982

1982

It was the same year that Hans Tholstrup and Larry Perkins built a solar car and drove it from Perth to Sydney in a world first.

Just four years later I witnessed the decriminalisation of homosexuality in NSW, Maralinga Nuclear tests were making news and I heardthe term climate change for the first time. Chernobyl also blew up just before I landed in Europe with a Kombi and a girlfriend (both of which I left behind), complicating the purchase of non-radiated food and forcing me to think about energy for the second time. The image of men in leather aprons being dropped onto the roof of an exploded, smouldering nuclear reactor from soviet era helicopters is forever etched in my mind. I’m starting to get angry about energy and Governments. Luckily, there was punk music to console me.

By 1993 recession had hit Australia and Keating declared us a Banana Republic.  Salt’NPeppa were still cool (to someone), REM were in their stride and Duran Duran hadn’t gone away yet. I’m almost 25yrs old, have my first child and my first mobile phone.

1993

1993

I left the “floundering and volatile” automotive industry where I was a fitter and turner and changed my life by going bush and getting into a “more stable growth industry” – solar power in the same year the Kyoto agreement was signed. In our fledgling solar company (supplying 100% off grid systems) we speculated about when one, let alone a million urban homes would have solar and argue about  whether “targeting cities to sell solar” made sense.  Meanwhile, Australia’s first grid connected system was installed at Mt Coolum for $27/W – 1.4kW for $40,000.

Over the next few years I raised my young family in a humble off grid house running entirely on a micro hydro and 120Watts of solar panels. My work day took me to our upgraded factory where we had installed Australia’s first 3Phase GC solar system in a passive solar building.  I was interviewed for a newspaper in 1997 and was quoted as saying “people in the city will be able to put a few panels on their roof, connect up and sell the excess…but we still have  a few years to go before we are competitive.”

By the year 2000 I had moved to Sydney to help run BP Solar as a National Manager. I recall visiting Brisbane to try and convince my dealers to switch from off grid battery systems to on grid –  and they scoffed at me. I helped design, patent and launch Australia’s very first GC solar kit “the Energizer” and the Olympic Village was one of the world’s largest solar suburbs with 950 systems. A few years later, we installed thousands more through Solar Cities in Alice Springs, Adelaide and Blacktown. Today, there are more than 1.5 million solar systems in Australia.

By 2007 the industry had grown from just a handful of solar businesses to 3,000, 200 workers to 10,000. Solar prices plummeted by 2/3rd in just a few years and I started a consulting business helping to grow solar businesses. Industry boomed by 2012 hitting 1 Billion watts installed in that year alone. We start fighting – and winning – against successive Government attacks on solar rebates and FITs as “The pendulum of solar favour” started to swing against us.

At our peak, our industry grew to provide direct employment to around 23,000; almost as many as the entire coal mining industry in 2013. We directly employed more than all but one sector in energy production. But it’s an incredibly tough, highly competitive, volatile  industry which has become commoditised and ultimately had shrunk by 30% by 2015. Monthly sales had collapsed, jobs and business were shed. At its worst, more than 200 solar companies are year were collapsing or exiting. The only good news was that unlike our traditional energy competitors, our industry was getting more productive and employment efficient.

Despite the setbacks, consumers aren’t giving up on solar and by 2015 we still employed as many hard working Australians as Ford, GMH and Toyota combined (direct) or put another way, roughly as many as every 7Eleven store.

2015

2015

Our Prime Minister at the time decimated solar consumer confidence by declaring “coal is good for humanity” before finally being exposed as an onion eating nut job and booted. I write my third letter to the Prime Minister about solar policy.

By 2016 it dawns on me that I haven’t commuted on my petrol bike for 3 years and I now own my second 100% electric motorbike, which has enough capacity to run a home.

Things have changed! 1.3million solar panels are installed in an outback town and there are now 1.5 million solar homes and more than 10,000 still employed in solar. We reach a historic new milestone with 23 million solar panels installed nationwide, one for every man woman and child in Australia.

And what of the future? By next year batteries will be over the tipping point for many more solar owners and starting to appear regularly in solar homes, not just early adopters. Networks and retailers will have to play or exit in new energy markets. You will have simple, accurate, accessible, intelligent data and control over your use, generation and storage of energy and it will be cheaper than you can buy it retail.

I will turn 50, celebrate a quarter century of fiddling around with silicon and more than likely end up right back where I started – selling solar battery systems.  

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  • Beat Odermatt

    A very refreshing article about the “Energiewende” in Australia. During 99% of human history all energy used was renewable. It took just a few generations to burn almost all non renewable resources on this planet. Are we the stupid generation which is burning essential raw materials needed by the offsprings of our grandchildren?

  • phred01

    I have 3.8kw grid connected for sometime. Already purchased another 6kw worth of panels and plan to homebrew a 15kw inverter. Just waiting for reasonably priced batteries……goodbye grid

  • eddierothmanisatool

    great little story. thanks nigel.