In the current madness that masquerades as Australian energy policy, looking back may be the balm to continue looking forward.
In 1994 – 24 years ago – the first residential solar system was connected to an Australian power grid.
Solar One, as it was called, used a 1.4 kW rooftop array to power my home at Mt Coolum, Queensland, exporting excess electricity into the SEQEB (now Energex) grid.
By any comparison to today’s systems, Solar One was a humble effort. But it was backed by the SEQEB head of Research, Tony Burke, and a phd student, Grayden Johnson, along with the ANZ Solar Energy Society and a number of private companies and individuals.
The technology, however, was state of the art – the latest Solarex 80 watt modules, and the first grid connected inverter designed by Aussie Dale Butler and manufactured by Siemens.
A Solahart provided the hot water. In today’s dollars, that was a $70,000 system. The energy efficient 180m2 building used about 7 kWr/day.
Two years of data from a flawless operation of the system allowed engineers to design the first grid-connection standard, which also won Grayden his PhD.
At one point during the demonstration, the exported electricity earned the project the first ever cheque to a private homeowner for solar electricity fed into their grid – $7. I still have the cheque.
If anything, Solar One was a modest effort by a committed group of individuals through the back door of a major utility. It was a small tweak of the plug holding in the clean energy genie.
And then, not much happened until the year 2000 when the Olympic Village connected a number of rooftop systems. Tweak again.
And then the Chinese decided to make solar panels. Boom. The genie was out of the bottle and there was no way it was going back in.
From my own 30-year perspective in clean energy, in Australia and many other countries the genie has languished in the bottle from a lack of imagination.
It was just too hard to imagine that solar panel and windmills could power anything useful. Ok, you can put some on your roof and pretend, but if you want to make steel…
It’s not difficult to understand why this attitude was so pervasive. Aside from the maturing technology issues, we have been blinded by extensive campaigns by vested interests to maintain the fossil fuel status quo.
Governments who are meant to lead and consider the national interests have, instead, showered those interests with absurdly generous taxpayer subsidies that not only continue, but could possibly increase with public funding of a new coal-fired power station. The empire strikes …you know.
Solar One provides a sort of baseline. After the successful completion of the project in 1995, we approached the head of SEQEB to do a 1o-home demonstration. Their response was blunt: this is not our business.
This is not our business?
It is now very much their business, whether they like it or not, and it’s being driven by citizens who are waking up to the dream of an economy powered by clean energy.
The change now simply makes dollars AND sense. It won’t be long in Australia before the policy dinosaurs – including the vicious denyosaurus rex – become extinct.
By looking back at the pioneers and dreamers before Solar One, the Elon Musks of today, and the exponential growth of clean energy, we can take some comfort and inspiration in the words of Einstein himself: nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.
Hey, call me a dreamer, but I’m not the… you know.
Peter Fries was the coordinator of the Solar One project and now lives on the Sunshine Coast in a different house with his 7 kW solar array (pictured above), EV and homebuilt electric microlight aircraft. You can see his Solar One TEDx talk “First One Out of the Foxhole” on Youtube.