From Humble Beginnings - Part 1

From Humble Beginnings - Part 1

The 80's in Nimbin saw the hippies not only protest for climate action and protect some of our most precious old growth rainforest, but the region also saw new technologies pioneered, and in the solar and renewable energy sector, Rainbow Power Company founders Peter van der Wik (alias Peter Pedals), Dave Christmas and Jack Von Hest were leaders in their field, setting about bringing affordable renewable energy to the fore (out of their car at the Channon market to start with) and spearheading the solar revolution 'there has never been a greater need for society to change the way they manage generate and consume energy' (Peter Pedals).

Already with a name and a logo in mind, in 1987 Rainbow Power Company was formed. With $90, some solar know-how and a passion for the environment, simple rechargeable torches soon gave way to complex integrated off grid and hybrid power systems, and the local customer base soon extended to the whole of Australia and the South Pacific. Solar at the time cost around $10 per watt, and now it is as low as 50 cents, and the technology is ever changing and improving.

Solar has steadily been becoming a more mainstream option for people; as far back as '97 BP Solar were opening the world's biggest solar manufacturing plant. That same year president Clinton launched a solar initiative to have solar installed on 1,000,000 US homes. These arguably aren’t true environmental idealists, but the figures are impressive nonetheless; where once going off grid was the domain of ferals and hippies, a cheaper if often rudimentary alternative for the drop outs of society, it was fast becoming thought of as a responsible step towards future energy creation and storage.

20 years ago the Australian Greenhouse Office 75% rebate was introduced, which along with lowered prices and increased battery storage capacities, saw a big national push, as people also became more aware of climate change and our national and individual carbon footprint.

Back then, RPC customers were stoked to just be able to run a light! Now aircon is not unusual and whole houses (indeed massive businesses) are run without compromise on the electrical devices connected or the overall quality of life. Generators kick in when needed and it is a seamless transition from solar to backup generator (or grid). Bake your bread, curl your hair, dehydrate your fruit, charge your car- whatever you want.

These days a lot of people in town get solar and feed back into the grid, they use a grid tie inverter that converts direct current (DC) into an alternating current (AC) suitable for inputting into a power grid. This is reasonably or relatively new technology and has bolstered the uptake of household solar.

Mod cons like toasters, kettles, pool pumps, air con, hair-dryers and the like, are no longer unusual for solar powered homes, and a solar powered house is no longer a hippie shack in the bush- for better or for worse.

'We were one of the first few solar companies in Australia and I used to be regarded as an extremist greenie who shouldn't be taken seriously, but now my views have become mainstream- although they haven't actually changed,' said Peter Pedals in 2010.

In 2005 Time magazine stated that solar panel costs had fallen 66% from the previous decade, and with the price of oil at US$70 a barrel at the time, the demand for Solar on the world market increased substantially; Analysts at the time estimated that a further 50% reduction would make solar powered electricity costs comparable with other types of fuel within the following decade. If oil and gas prices continued to increase (which they did), the cost parity would come a lot sooner (which it has).

Reports such as this one from the Scientific American (21 Feb 2008) helped to further highlight the need for solar uptake:

'PV power would cut air pollution, including the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, by nearly 90 percent if it replaced fossil fuels”.

Australia, with our great expanses of land and plentiful sunshine, could (and should!) be leading the way with PV solar production. DC from RPC said back in 2010 that an array of 120km x 120km would provide enough solar PV energy to power the whole world, it would take less than that now with the new and improved panels that are available (and that RPC use).

RPC at Channon market in the early days

From the back of a van, to a market stall, to a little shop front, to today's massive premises and online shop, RPC have seen a lot in its 33 years in business; Our passionate 3 founding members have exploded to 35 employees – and we are the biggest employer in the little town of Nimbin.

RPC is the largest solar powered workshop in the southern hemisphere, making us totally self-sufficient for power, with the added benefit of being able to sell excess power to the grid and buy it back again when needed (i.e. when there is insufficient sun).

Memorable moments in our journey include Confest '91, when three RPC workers drove 20 hours straight to arrive in time to power the entire site; 100 panels set up in the middle of the festival provided power for 5000 nearly naked and nearly normal people.

A year later Greens member for parliament and rock star Peter Garrett opened the new Rainbow premises at #1 Alternative Way. This was the early 90s, a time when RPC really were the trailblazers for alternative energy-not so any more. Now with hundreds of solar retailers in Australia, 21% of Australia's electricity came from renewable energy in 2018 making the rooftop solar PV a multi-billion dollar industry. In the last quarter of 2018 NSW generation from large scale solar farms for the first time exceeded the generation from gas fired plants (by 108 gWh).

Investing in the local area, we support a number of community events and organisations, but we don't stop there; RPC have a long history of participation in solar projects in PNG, the Solomon Islands, and throughout the Pacific region.

Bucking Australian consumer trends of the early 2000s, 2006 saw RPC rightly win an award for Most Environmentally Friendly Business (Lismore area); one of many environmental business awards to come.

Also bucking lending trends, banks and financial institutions in the 00s and early 10s started to offer 'green' and 'eco' loans to eligible people wanting to install solar power.

At RPC, we've always done things differently; one staffer memorably caught and removed a carpet snake that was in the caretaker's cottage- on her first day at work! In the recent bush fires many staff relocated their prized possessions to RPC, with quite a few using it as a temporary home also. During those two weeks staff came and went sporadically as they fought to save their homes and communities; RPC granting leave, supplying stationary, marquees, meals, tools, high vis shirts and at times transport, to those in need - small things but greatly appreciated in unprecedented hardships.

Music jams, table tennis tournaments and pizza nights are common at RPC; workshop attendees camp out the back, and they celebrate every worker's birthday with a home-made cake. Staff help each other with system design and sales problems, and staff planning days make the most of their ever expanding knowledge base. Of course staff attend the famous weekend workshop Living with Solar free of charge, increasing their knowledge about off the grid stand alone power systems and their components.

Cosmic discussions regarding not just solar power, are common and encouraged; more than one innovative product has resulted from one of the many 'pipe dreams' or propositions from those early days of brainstorming in the specially designed courtyard, which for years served as a natural 'air-conditioned' meeting place. Water dragons, spiders and some snakes (of the non-venomous persuasion) are unofficial mascots! We do also have some canine mascots these days, and staff's children are often in the lunch room waiting for mum or dad to finish work, sometimes they might even wash a car for some pocket money- old school!

Recent changes to standards and legislations (and covid) have seen the company stride into the new decade with aplomb, applying new technologies and design practices to ensure 100% compliance. RPC customers can rest assured that the safety of their home (or business) -and that of their family- is priority number one, and that no corners are cut when it comes to safety standards.

Although they now have new corporate uniforms and a company sales car (logo and all!), they really are still just a larger version of that first market stall- like-minded people coming together to find a solution to the ever growing need for clean power.

Rainbow Power Company Ltd is an unlisted public company, incorporated in 1987 when there were only 8 solar companies in Australia - now there are 100s.

Back to blog