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25 years on, solar industry finds itself in midst of historic moment

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Every now and again if you are really lucky, you get to observe what’s going on around you and bear witness to history in the making, a unique event or occurrence that is unlikely to ever happen again or something representative of a small milestone in mankind’s history.

I’ve been called “The Big Kev of Solar” for my gushing enthusiasm and excitement around solar energy, but bear with me for a minute.

A few months ago, the idea of holding a small party for twenty or thirty solar pioneers came to life. With a precedent at a similar US event, a small group of Australians figured it was time we celebrated too and on Friday night that came to life in Sydney.

We figured we had something a bit special on our hands when the numbers passed fifty, and by the time the doors opened almost eighty guests who had passed our 25 year minimum service requirement for entry steadily streamed in.

Now, I’ll be honest, “re-unions” can be pretty staid affairs and I think everyone was a little worried that it might be a flop. There’s nothing worse than a lot of boring old farts reminiscing about the good old days ad trying to remember people’s names who you shared small moments with in the annals of time.

But this was something entirely different.

Our event was designed to celebrate not only what happened, but more importantly, where are today and where we are headed. The fact that every single person in that room (and many more who couldn’t make it) had contributed in their own small way made it a joyful, exciting and genuinely uplifting experience.

We heard countless fascinating stories about key events in the formative years of the industry but also bore witness to the continuation of this work through common threads, right up to today.

Several guests had brought along memorabilia and examples of solar evolution. We saw the original hand drawn design for a solar inverter, from thirty years ago.

We played with solar modules that were made in 1972, and others that had seen “active service” for more than two decades in Bass Strait, ironically helping to operate Gas extraction platforms. Brochures, photo albums  and of course a wonderful slide show of the journey we had all witnessed.

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We also took time to remember those pioneers who sadly are no longer with us.

I was personally deeply affected to learn of the recent passing of Dr Bill Parker, who I was fortunate to remain connected with for many, many years by virtue of the fact that I helped get him up and running with his first solar system and then learning from him by writing for Solar Progress magazine. Rest in peace old friend, you were one of several highly influential mentors who I was fortunate to cross paths with.

We tried to keep the formalities and speeches to a minimum which is always vexed when people worked so hard to attend. Particular thanks goes to those travelled from interstate and even overseas to attend, including several New Zealand solar pioneers and a US solar pioneer.

Of course, catching up with old friends and colleagues is always great. Reminiscing is fun, but connecting the dots between where we started and where our energy market is today made it profound.

In one conversation, a solar pioneer most eloquently highlighted this point:

“Never in my entire history in this industry have I witnessed renewables and energy being so interconnected on a grand scale or front page news across the country as it was in the last week.

“No matter whether we had  altruistic, capitalistic or hippy ideals, this week we arrived. We set out to change the world and it is now unassailably and permanently changed. Renewables and storage are not a fringe technology.

“They are now being used to describe the foundation of our entire energy market and the political forces have boxed themselves into a corner that they cannot escape.  The day that a billionaire announces he is willing and able to give away a 100MW energy storage system is the day everything changes forever”

This event was also a great reminder that the solar industry is a wonderfully diverse and eclectic mix of people and disciplines.

We have the world’s best solar scientists. We have leading, highly innovative manufacturers. We have forward thinking and genuinely visionary leaders. And of course we have steadfast, reliable and hard working people who pull it all together and get it sold and installed.

There were also some thought provoking observations about our group and the trials, tribulations and success that have occurred.

Almost without exception everyone in the room has managed to make a living, bring up their families and survive off the proceeds of solar energy for more than two decades; no small feat on its own.

However, only a very tiny proportion have made substantial money from our industry and even less have managed to hang on to any wealth, typically re-investing it and doubling down if they were so lucky to have made it in the first place.

One observer of the event highlighted to me that there is also a bit of a consistent theme when you look at the people who qualified as solar pioneers.

“In the majority of cases, solar pioneers are not the owners of mass market highly successful solar companies in Australia. They seem to have a habit of bouncing between companies or business opportunities that are typically just ahead of the curve which sadly prevents them from reaping huge financial rewards and stranding them in the perpetually volatile world of high risk start-ups. That’s not necessarily a bad thing or a problem, but it is a shame.”

This is a really interesting point. It could be construed to imply that the majority of us are too altruistically driven and poor business people, but I didn’t hear a single complaint about that from anyone I spoke with. Of course, the partners of our solar pioneers who have helped carry the burden of life for so long may have a slightly different view.

It was also telling to note that in many cases those of us fortunate to still be in the industry we love so much are increasingly dealing with the sons and daughters of colleagues we started working with so many years ago.  Perhaps a qualification criteria worth considering for next time?

It is worth mentioning that we gave a single politician the chance to speak on the night, but like all speakers, running over time, politicising or promoting copped a $50 fine/bar contribution. Our guest did a plumb job, avoided a fine and paid genuine tribute to everyone.

Sadly, many hundreds of other contributors to our industry missed our twenty five year cut off.  There was much debate about whether we should reconsider our guidelines to celebrate with a wider audience.

Ultimately, the scale and importance of the event caught us all by surprise but I do want to make sure everyone else knows that the solar pioneers acknowledged their contributions just as much as our own. Every industry needs a new, next generation to take the baton and run and there is still plenty to be done.

Many people asked “when is the next event?”. At present there are no plans for another celebration, although this may change over time of course.

On behalf of the organisers I worked with we want to thank our employers for their (silent) support, our pioneers for travelling many miles to attend and all the support and good wishes we received from around the world.

I can’t possibly name everyone’s awesome support and effort in attending without getting it wrong or missing something critical but you know who you are and at least, can now and forever bask in the glory of being an official solar pioneer.

We salute you!  

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  • Andy Saunders

    Not sure a billionaire is offering to give away a 100MW storage system… sell it, sure. But not give away.

  • John P

    I would be with you in spirit Nigel. I’ve now been living ‘off grid’ for 25 years. We met occasionally back in the ‘good olde days’.

  • humanitarian solar

    Thanks to all the old timers in the field. I’d like to thank Collyn Rivers for taking the time to write down his experience in his books Solar Success: Complete guide to home and property systems. Also Solar that really works: cabins, caravans, campervans, motor homes. I’ve found his books in my local library and his websites very helpful in thinking about design and planning a vehicle and a property. I personally love that solar can be so simple. Humanitarian. A symbol of humanity’s fundamental right to access and harness natures energy. Thanks to those who worked to make the world a little more equitable and set the foundations for us to generate and store energy.

    • solarguy

      Well thank you very much HS. My pleasure.

      • humanitarian solar

        Thank you. Hows the planning of your new system coming along? Will you be making an appearance on one of these websites? I’m keen to see the combination of technologies chosen. Also did you see Victron got its 48V/3000VA inverter approved so what do you reckon of its evolution at this stage?

        • solarguy

          Rain and other priorities have set it back, however the new 6.3kw Array should be on in 3 days, batteries are finally in and I’m going out to finish the wire up after I cool down here in the office. It’s very humid and 32c.

          Haven’t seen the Victron yet, but I’ll get around to it. Catch ya later!