Solar in my life, a positive power story
by Elowyn Paitson
I grew up on a Multiple Occupancy in the bush, in the beautiful hills that surround Nimbin village. The property we lived on, while close to town as the crow flies, was made remote by twelve kilometres of rough bush track and winding, corrugated dirt road. The nearest mains power connection was over three Ks away, and the steep, forested terrain meant that to connect mains power to the property would cost many tens of thousands of dollars, even in the late 1970s when the community formed.
The early years of my life were 'unpowered'. We used kerosene lamps and candles for light, gas and wood stoves for cooking. When I was small, our fridge was a bucket kept in the shadiest pool of the nearby creek, later replaced with a gas refrigerator. My mother built the beginnings of our house with hand tools, her antique builders saw and hand-drill prized possessions. We had no phone, no TV, and this was of course a decade or more before the birth of the internet.
We installed our first solar panels in 1985, when I was 7 years old. A group of people on Tuntable Falls community had organised a bulk buy of solar panels. RPC founders, Dave Christmas and Peter Pedals, who were selling panels at local markets along with various off-grid inventions, installed the system on the roof of our tiny home. RPC was in its infancy at this time; a collective of inventers, engineers, electricians and dreamers who formed to bring sustainable power to the growing off-grid communities in the hills of Nimbin and beyond. Our first solar installation consisted of 3 panels and a second-hand car battery, no inverter. I remember the excitement my brother and I felt at being able to turn on a light with the tug of a string. Our small set-up allowed us to run a couple of lights for several hours a day. We also had a 12V socket into which we could plug our earliest appliances; a radio cassette player and a teeny tiny hand-held vacuum cleaner. RPC supplied a range of appliances modified to suit the 12V systems of the day; blenders, juicers, fans and lights.
I'll never forget Christmas morning, 1986. I was 8 years old. I woke before dawn and waited through the morning birdsong for the sun to rise so that I could peer down from our loft bedroom and see our freshly-delivered Christmas bounty. So unexpected was the black-and-white television with its 12-inch screen and cigarette-lighter socket, I didn't recognise it at all until Mum plugged it in. Our solar system brought in enough power to allow half an hour of TV each day. My brother and I squabbled over whose turn it was to choose the afternoon cartoons; Inspector Gadget or Secret Valley, Monkey Magic or Dr Who. In wet weather we nursed our batteries through by reverting to reading and playing by candlelight.
Over the years, RPC grew, solar panels and batteries became more efficient and more affordable, and our own solar system also grew. By the time I was a teenager we were able to run a colour TV, stereo systems, multiple kitchen and bathroom appliances, and lighting throughout the house which had grown by then into a small hamlet. My Mum bought one of the first laptops ever made. An IBM, it was one of 10,000 or so built for field agents working on telecommunications. My Dad tracked one down and Kali from RPC built a 12V adapter for the charger. A government solar grant in the late '90s allowed my Dad to install a new solar system on one of our cottages. He ran an independent ISP, Nimnet, from there for over a decade.
Throughout most of my 20s I lived away from Nimbin in various towns and cities and became accustomed to 240V living. When my first child was small and I returned to the Bush to build my own home there, I was fortunate to receive the Renewable Energy Diesel Replacement Scheme grant, a 50% reduction in the cost of installing a new 24V system. We were able to move off-grid with only small modifications to our lifestyle; using our flat screen TV and X-Box only when the weather is sunny, making sure the baking cycle of the bread maker occurs during the middle of the day when the most power is coming in, or never using the vacuum cleaner during the washing machine's spin cycle. Small sacrifices to be able to live in paradise, far from the bustle of suburbia. As mains power costs have risen sharply over the past decade, our system has more than paid for itself, while allowing a lifestyle that would have been unattainable in town.
Rainbow Power Company has been a part of my life for almost 35 years. It was instrumental in bringing affordable, renewable energy to my family and so many others; locally, nationally, and globally. It employed my Mum for many years and myself for the last two, and I am both grateful and proud to be a part of a company with such a wonderful legacy, and such a promising future.