The Solar Guru’s Journey: From Radioactive Tomatoes to BP Solar

Fast read

It all began with a trip to Europe, where he stumbled upon some radioactive tomatoes. This sparked his interest in the impact of energy on our lives and set him on a long journey of exploring alternative energy sources.

Fast forward to Nigel's role at Rainbow Power, a hippie solar company in Nimbin, where he gained experience in the wind, solar, micro-hydro, coconut-powered biomass machines, and more. But that was just the beginning. Nigel later transitioned to BP Solar, where he met our host and had the opportunity to influence the industry from the inside.

It's a fascinating journey filled with unexpected twists and turns. So, if you're ready for an exciting and informative podcast episode, join us for a chat with Nigel Morris, the solar guru of 30 years! Oh, and don't forget our energy-boosting ritual at the start of the episode!

Nigel Morris at YEA Podcast EP1

Nigel Morris, a solar industry expert with three decades of experience, joins the YEA podcast as its first guest. In a conversation with host Markus Lambert. He recounts his fascinating journey into the world of solar energy, starting from a surprising incident in Europe to his career in Australia.

At age 18, Morris was travelling through Europe with his girlfriend. While in Germany, they came across tomatoes bearing a nuclear radiation symbol, fallout from the Chernobyl incident. He recalls the incident as his first real confrontation with the implications of energy production and consumption. Which led him to question the sources and environmental impacts of our energy.

In Australia, his first step into the solar industry was with the Rainbow Power Company, an alternative energy company based in Nimbin. Rainbow Power was formed by a group of “hippies” pioneering the industry in Australia. They not only produced a variety of renewable energy solutions, from solar to wind to micro-hydro systems. But they also had a strong presence in Southeast Asia and beyond. Living in a house powered by hydro and a small solar system, Morris began to appreciate the real-world applications and potential of renewable energy.

After working with Rainbow Power

After working with Rainbow Power, Morris got a chance to attend an event in Sydney on the company’s behalf. There he met a senior salesperson from BP Solar, Richard Collins. Collins dispelled a prevalent rumour that big corporations were holding back solar technology. Instead, he revealed BP’s serious commitment to solar, demonstrated by its planned investments and upcoming factory projects. This piqued Morris’s interest, and he decided to join BP Solar.

At BP Solar, he found himself transitioning from an alternative energy company to a multinational corporation. A move that provided him with a broader perspective on the solar industry. Initially, BP Solar was operating out of a small facility in Sydney, which used to be owned by one of the first solar companies in the world, Tideland. Later, after a merger between BP and Amoco’s solar companies, they moved to a larger, state-of-the-art facility in Sydney’s Olympic Park. The new site was among the world’s largest solar manufacturing facilities at the time.

Morris’s journey through the solar industry has been marked by curiosity, dedication, and a willingness to challenge prevailing assumptions. His story is a testament to the evolution of the solar sector. From its grassroots beginnings to its current role in the global energy mix.

BP Solar at its peak

Nigel Morris, a veteran of the solar industry, recalls the era when Australia was a significant producer of solar panels. His tenure at BP Solar saw the company peak at producing and exporting around 50 megawatts of solar energy annually. Global trips allowed Morris to visit BP Solar’s specialized plants worldwide. From Barcelona to Germany, India, and the United States.

However, the current scale of Australia’s solar importation dwarfs these past accomplishments, bringing in 1000 to 2000 megawatts yearly. In comparison, the past capacity seems negligible. With factories needing to be much larger to be viable.

During BP Solar’s peak, solar panels cost around $11 per watt, a price that has drastically fallen to 40 cents per watt today due to capacity increases and technological advances. BP Solar, despite its early foray and significant investments into solar technology, is no longer active.

Reasons for its closure include changes in senior management, lack of high-level corporate support, and ageing manufacturing equipment. Simultaneously, China emerged with new technology and manufacturing capabilities. The drop in silicon prices, from hundreds of dollars a kilo to $30 or $40. BP Solar’s long-term contracts with high-priced silicon further complicated matters.

Today, the vast majority of solar panels, 99%, imported into Australia are made in China. There is still some local production capacity, particularly one facility in Adelaide. However, the facility’s capacity, while serving the local market, is not significant enough to impact the larger trend of Australian reliance on imported solar products.

The solar industry in 2006

In 2006, the Australian solar industry had an annual sale of 4 megawatts, equivalent to supplying solar energy for 400 homes. Now, Australia installs approximately 25,000 solar systems a month.

Australia’s abundant sunshine and the early need for solar in remote telecommunications facilitated the growth of the solar industry. Despite not having high energy prices, the favourable returns and large-scale energy generation made the economics of solar energy attractive.

Markus Lambert highlights the irony that the Liberals, led by John Howard, contributed significantly to the initial boom in the solar industry. A pre-election rebate of $8,000 per solar installation was instrumental in catalyzing the industry’s growth. Over time, different rebate schemes and tariffs, often driven by political motivations, further supported the industry.

One of the most generous subsidies, the $8,000 rebate, was controversially stopped by Peter Garrett due to safety concerns raised by the parallel ‘Pink Bats’ scheme. There was controversy around the implementation of the rebate. Particularly when companies exploited the scheme by signing up elderly residents in aged-care facilities, which led to a surge of inefficient installations. Following an influx of applications, the rebate was abruptly cancelled.

Markus Lambert talking about solar energy

Solar sharks – not a nice group of solar industry participants

In this conversation between Nigel Morris and Markus Lambert, both experts in the solar industry, they delve into the darker side of the sector known as “solar sharks”. These are short-term companies that exploit government rebates for personal gain. providing low-quality services and products, often disappearing after the initial transaction. Morris points out that the solar industry has seen an influx of such companies since 2005 due to its increasing popularity and the potential for significant revenues.

Morris and Lambert discuss the unfortunate reality of solar customers falling prey to these companies due to the attraction of lower prices. These customers are left with subpar products and no recourse when these companies declare bankruptcy and disappear. Morris provides a chilling example of this in the form of a man called Pastor Steve, who fraudulently collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in deposits for solar systems he never intended to supply.

Despite this grim landscape, Morris advises those interested in solar energy to think long-term. He recommends filling one’s roof with as many solar panels as possible, regardless of the direction they face. Although the return on investment for batteries is currently limited due to high prices, he anticipates this will change in a few years. He also advocates for full electrification of households to maximize the benefits of solar energy.

Electric Vehicles are on their way

Lambert adds to this point by saying that if you’re thinking about buying an electric car. You should think about getting solar panels, a battery, and an EV charger all at once. When you add this cost to your home loan, you could start making savings within six years due to not having to buy petrol. He also shares a story about Morris’s daughter who briefly worked for a dodgy solar company, to emphasize how important it is to understand the business.

They also talk about selling solar systems door-to-door. Lambert and Morris agree that good service in these situations is not common. Morris says that people should do their own research and not be easily convinced by salespeople at their door.

Then, Lambert asks Morris about recycling solar panels. Morris knows there’s been a lot of progress, but he thinks there’s still room for improvement. Many solar panels are now being dumped at waste depots, and Morris believes these could be recycled. To help the recycling business, Morris suggests adding a small extra charge to solar panels to build up a fund. He mentions that they do something similar in the US.

Two men talking about solar energy

Recycling Solar Panels

In response to Lambert’s question about recycling centres in big cities. Morris agrees and thinks the Federal Government should get involved. He also suggests ‘upcycling’ or reusing good quality panels from waste depots. He thinks it’s important for the government to help and hopes there will be one or two big recycling plants soon.

When they talk about the new Federal Government, Morris is excited about their recognition of the potential of renewable energy. He thinks the government’s positive comments about solar energy and electric cars will make consumers and businesses more confident.

Morris says that the influence of ‘teal’ independents on government policies is really important. He talks about a time when renewable energy sources helped to stop a power cut in South Australia, showing how reliable these sources can be.

Next, they discuss homeowners with small solar systems. Morris suggests checking that the system is safe and works well and getting a bigger system if you can. Regarding the Clean Energy Council (CEC) and the Solar Council, he sees some problems but also praises their work to improve the solar business. When asked if he has ever thought about going into politics, Morris says no.

Approved Retailer Program

Lambert asks Morris about the Approved Retailer Program for solar companies and the difficulties of using solar energy in rented homes. Morris says that, despite some issues, the Approved Retailer Program has helped to protect customers and keep standards high in the solar business. It has also allowed for quick action against companies doing the wrong thing, like removing their accreditation, which helps to protect customers even more.

They then talk about how renters can get access to solar energy. This is often forgotten about by government solar programs. Morris disagrees with the idea that solar energy is just a luxury for the middle class, saying that it’s often people with lower incomes and those living in rural areas who are most affected by high energy costs who invest in solar.

According to Morris, the main problem in the rental market is dealing with different people like owners, agents, renters, and councils. Despite the difficulties, Lambert and Morris both see a lot of potentials if the rules and regulations can be simplified, especially since rented homes are a largely untapped market for solar energy.

Final thoughts

Lambert suggests that the government could create an improved rebate system to incentivise landlords to install solar panels on rental properties and in turn, pass these benefits on to their tenants. Both parties urge the government to explore this opportunity further, seeing it as a crucial step towards making solar energy accessible for all and tackling cost-of-living issues. They end with a call to action for the government to invest more in the renewable industry.

Should you consider purchasing solar, batteries, or other renewable energy products, we recommend engaging with a qualified local supplier or installer to provide extensive advice. To find the right partner try our company finder and ask our recommended experts to assist you. Using a Your Energy Answers Authorised Partner will give you a well-vetted, experienced, reliable, and trustworthy company to serve your needs.

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