David Turner, who worked at Solar Systems before its collapse, talked to Solidarity about the lack of government support for the company and the solar power industry in Australia generally
Solar Systems is the world leader in concentrated photo-voltaic solar power—that means we use solar cells to directly generate electricity to go into the grid. We’re the world leader—about two years ahead of the competition in the rest of the world. We’re the only company in Australia that does it, and there’s no real contenders in solar thermal either. So in terms of large-scale utility solar power, Solar Systems is the only company in Australia.
Solar Systems directly employed about 160 people with about 40 left, and [the rest] retrenched. We also obviously worked with a lot of suppliers that make mirrors, solar cells, dish structures, cables etc. There’s thousands [of other jobs there] when you add it up.
For the Mildura project there would have been 1000 people working in construction. That’s a lot of jobs that have been put in jeopardy.
Most of the people who worked at Solar Systems think it is a real shame if the technology is to be lost or sent overseas because it’s just so close to realisation. We have power stations that have been working at our remote sites since 2003 which are proven in the field and at the moment we’re in cost down phase, so that we could get a single power station cost-effective against fossil fuels.
Mildura solar plant
We were going to build a 154-Megawatt power station in Mildura. That’s enough power for 40,000 to 45,000 homes. Under the Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund the Victorian government set up, $125 million was pledged both from the federal government and the state government.
From what I understand $500,000 has been delivered to Solar Systems. The rest of the funds are tied to milestones when the power station ramps up to full output in 2011 and 2012.
The whole project was going to cost roughly $400 million—the rest of the money coming from business and private investors.
The first milestone of the project—to build a small 140-kilowatt demonstration field—we achieved on time in October last year. In the middle of last year we went to international conferences showing photos of it working and everyone was blown away and couldn’t believe how much work had been achieved in a year. From that it was going to ramp up [until] completion in 2013.
Solar Systems had a shortfall and needed extra funds to continue operating. So they went around the world looking for capital investors to put some money into the company. Unfortunately they started during the week of Lehman Brothers collapse last year. With the global financial crisis there’s been no money around the world for these sort of ventures and with no real government incentives, Solar Systems hasn’t been able to lure any new money in. There were also mistakes made by Solar Systems management and money wasted.
The major problem is there are no government incentives or regulations and frameworks that make it viable for businesses to [build solar power stations].
Really the only way the Mildura project will go ahead is if Solar Systems finds a buyer who may want to continue the project. There is no other company in Australia that can do it.