Three decades ago, I visited Nimbin’s Rainbow Power Company for the first time pondering a change of lifestyle and career. It felt like I had landed in an alternative universe. I found a ramshackle collective of Aquarius Festival survivors who had built a business out of saving the planet, creating right livelihood and mandating employment equality well before such issues were mainstream. Hidden behind the bare feet, good vibes and pervasive scent of patchouli, I soon realised I was actually amongst determined, brilliant visionaries who were more than willing to just get on with solving the problem of making renewable energy affordable and accessible. I quit my job making cars and switched to helping to make solar gear.
Recently one of their founders tragically passed away, the inimitable, visionary and wonderfully quirky Peter Pedals. This story is dedicated to Peter, his legacy and his vision.
When the company launched in 1987 there was literally a tiny handful of solar companies selling solar in Australia. The regulations to allow you to connect solar to the grid hadn’t even been created so it was exclusively the domain of homeowners who wanted – or needed - to go off grid. A single 50Watt solar panel would set you back around $1500 (plus batteries and control gear) and typically power a few 12V lights and a radio. It was basic, mostly handmade but it worked.
When I joined Rainbow Power Company (RPC) in 1992 the industry had grown to around 100 companies, costs had come down, the technology was rapidly improving, and Rainbow Power Company had built a huge mud brick solar and wind powered factory on the edge of town at the coolest ever address of 1 Alternative Way. I was hired because I had been working in the automotive industry, helping to build car parts and servicing equipment. I had done my trade as a Fitter and Turner but grown into roles including metrology, statistical process control and quality management – but was frustrated at “being part of the problem rather than the solution” to climate change. By complete con-incidence, RPC had decided to pursue ISO9000 quality accreditation, and I happened to call at the exact same time that they were trying to work out how on earth they were going to do it.
RPC was undergoing natural growth pains as they emerged from a cottage industry to a fully-fledged business so there were plenty of challenges. However, it became quickly evident that they were onto something huge. At various times while I was there, we manufactured solar controllers, micro hydro generators, rechargeable torches, micro-grid controllers, 12V appliances and even dabbled in wind and steam generators. The company were famous for their top selling veggielights – literally a 12V halogen globe loving fitted to a vegemite jar which made low cost, robust and (at the time) efficient light (LEDs weren’t a thing then!).
A highlight I remember fondly was travelling to a conference on behalf of RPC to speak about our work in remote areas and then travelled to a farf-lung Indonesian village where I scoped out the potential for coconut-powered steam generation, solar and wind power at a small family run resort. The project didn’t proceed but I’ll never forget watching grandma walk out into the distance late at night, lantern in hand to catch fresh mud crabs, which were duly turned into an epic pot of the most stunning chilli mud crab I have ever tasted.
RPC were bold pioneers in remote power for villages and communities all over the world. I recall the team travelling regularly to remote parts of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Australian indigenous communities. Today of course, they are still chipping away but with up-to-date technology blending with their down to earth style and unbeatable experience.
I was also a board member for some time which was exciting and challenging all at once as we grappled with the emergence of an industry, new rules and competitors. Perhaps the most memorable debate was whether solar would ever be allowed to connect to grid and when it might happen. I remember Peter Pedals scoffing at the concept as “incredibly unrealistic to think average Australians would pay $30,000 for a tiny grid connected solar system that they weren’t allowed to sell the energy from” during one particularly heated debate.
But things moved fast. I witnessed the connection of Solar One during my time there, the very first residential grid connected solar system in Australia done as an experiment in Queensland. Not long afterwards, we made the highly contentious decision to connect the factory to the grid to test the system. It took an awfully long time to negotiate a 2c FIT (after initially getting 0) but by then we had an array of manually tracking solar panels or various types, two wind generators, batteries and - on pizza night or when we had international delegations visiting for training - we would fire up the steam engine too and generate our happy little cheesecloth pants off. The RPC team will forever retain the title of being the first to connect a 3 Phase solar system in Australia.
After a few years I settled in with my family to the nearby Tuntable Falls community to a very basic shack and geodesic dome (of course) which was home for many years. With the help of the RPC team, I upgraded from a 40 Watt solar system to a class leading 60 Watt system which could run a few 12V lights, two-way radio, small water pump and a black and white TV - on sunny days. Over the years we added a very early handmade prototype micro hydro water turbine too. It used the high pressure, low flow water pressure from a 350 metre long water line which sat in a small creek in the rainforest above us and was an ideal back up in the wet season, with used water dumped into a communal water tank which then fed our house supply. This micro hydro was literally a crudely welded steel frame with an old water bowl housing a pelton wheel made out of teaspoons welded to a disc. An AC generator fed power to a deadly looking but highly innovative box of electronics which kept things under control, converted the 3phase AC power to 12V and sent it down a perilous cable through the trees to our solar battery. Good times.
Over my five years at the company, I was privileged to work with many dozens of innovative, brilliant and utterly committed men and women, but Peter Pedals left an indelible imprint on me. Pete was loaded with unassuming quirkiness and a reputation for bicycling everywhere – but it belied a tenacious determination to just do everything he possibly could to make a difference in every way possible. He was as intelligent as he was odd, and driven by deep values to the point where I struggled to connect with him at times, such was his focus.
But I also remember listening carefully to his sage words, though he rarely cast his opinions around. I found him deeply thoughtful and willing to engage in debate, without being forceful or arrogant. Occasionally, his passion for solving issues would bubble up into stern but short lectures and he was one of the most broadly learned people I had ever met.
During my stint at RPC Peter had been passionately involved in developing the very first training courses in solar and renewable energy. I remember him cursing “the bureaucrats” who were trying to do the same and correcting their theories and syllabus many times. Ultimately, he ended up personally delivering many training courses in the company’s purpose-built facility, including Australia’s first Off Grid solar training course which attracted budding solar entrepreneurs from across the world. Nowhere else in the country could you be trained in renewable energy, in a factory powered by renewable energy, by people who lived almost entirely off grid with renewable energy.
Peter was the enigmatic OG of solar hippies. He was perpetually re-writing and republishing “Energy from Nature”, the ultimate renewables handbook, and actively involved in many aspects of managing and guiding the business. Pete was driven and often serious as a result, but I have many fond memories of him smiling and cracking strange jokes through a wry smile, before whizzing off to his next important task.
My relationship with Peter was based around our shared work life and community and I cannot imagine the grief his family and friends must be suffering following his passing.
Pete, you showed us what was possible and what commitment to a cause really was. Thank you for everything you did and for paving the way for so many.
Rest in peace.