Sydney’s largest solar panel plant rescued from the brink of extinction

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When BP Solar made the decision to close its Sydney-based PV cell and solar panel manufacturing plant on November 18, 2008, it wasn’t just the 200 employees’ hearts that sank. As BP closed its doors for the final time, Australia’s PV manufacturing industry looked like it would never again see the light of day. It was then that the unexpected occurred, the fate of the dormant plant was left in the hands of a nuclear energy research company. SilexSolar has now given the facility a new breath of life as it opens its doors once more.

When previous owner BP Solar ran things at the manufacturing plant, which is based in the Sydney Olympic Park, the factory represented approximately 17% of its 300MW of manufacturing capabilities. At that time, this was the only facility in the country producing monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels. The closure then brought a black cloud over the country, identifying Australia as a solar research and supply country rather than the preferred contributor and manufacturer.

BP Solar’s decision to up sticks was motivated, of course, by monetary success. The fierce competition from companies based in Japan and China refocused the company’s operations at larger scale plants in lower cost manufacturing countries, which added the benefit of being closer to Chinese sources of silicon meaning costs were significantly slashed. And so the facility was closed.

However, the story does not of course end with a dust coated plant left in the dark for all eternity.

Australian uranium enrichment group Silex Systems’ subsidiary, SilexSolar, spotted the bargain and managed to purchase the plant from BP Solar in 2009 for a far lower figure than would be expected, as BP was keen to move on. SilexSolar then worked to get the facility up-and-running as soon as was possible.

Now that the plant’s machines are back in action, the Olympic Park plant will produce up to 10,000 rooftop solar panel systems a year, filling more than 10% of Australia’s demand for solar panels, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

However, while the revival of the plant is an obvious boost for the lagging Australian industry – – which suffers from a lack of investment compared with other countries such as China, the U.S. and Germany – – the re-opening of the plant will force a moral dilemma on go-greeners in the country. Do they really want to invest in Australian-made solar panels, when they will also, indirectly, be investing in nuclear energy?

Silex Systems’ CEO, Michael Goldsworthy thinks they will. “Solar and nuclear energy are a great fit,” he said. “Looking down the barrel of climate change and global warming, we need to develop alternative electricity sources.”

While it is obvious that Goldworthy would take this stance, it is unlikely that the company’s bloodline will affect the sales of its solar panels with a noticeable effect, as most customers will appreciate the nuclear research company’s investment. Solar energy is becoming more of a common investment with each year that passes; it is not solely environmentalist, earth-praising go-greeners that are turning to renewable energy sources, it is also Joe and Jane Average who want to invest. However, like everything, only time will truly tell how successful the plant will be.

The re-opening of this plant really is great news for the Australian solar industry (nuclear complaints aside) as the demand for solar panels has significantly surged since 2006 when the national solar incentives scheme came into effect. Solar feed-in tariffs, especially the gross variety, are boosting the market in the country by a noteworthy proportion, and are expected to continue to do so. The Sydney-based manufacturing facility will now match the country’s effort to increase its percentage of renewable energy generation by producing a product to meet the industry’s growing needs.

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