An Aussie solar success story

The story of Silex Systems is a fascinating one and a tale of hard work and persistence paying off in the long-term. That said, there's still plenty of work ahead.

Silex Systems really has to be congratulated.

This week it announced that its Concentrated PV arm (Solar Systems) has connected its first full scale 1.5MW CPV system, although it’s far from its first foray into the world of solar power.

Silex has a background in uranium enrichment which seems odd, until you understand that CEO Dr Michael Goldsworthy was Dr Martin Green’s drinking buddy at University. During Goldsworthy’s meritorious (but unsuccessful)  attempt at manufacturing flat plate PV at BP Solar’s old facility in Sydney, he described to me that although he and Green headed in different technological directions, they shared common ground on a vision for cleaner energy solutions.

Goldsworthy (and his partners) developed an enrichment process that is so revolutionary it almost defies logic and he is clearly a very, very clever man.

So where does solar fit?

Interestingly, it’s all about enrichment. The core enrichment process he developed has applications for a huge variety of materials (not just uranium) and it was this enlightened view that got him scouring the world for other possibilities around the time that Silex was first floated some years ago. It resulted in the acquisition of a US-based company that was dabbling in PV physics and processing and led to Silex Solar being formed to fast-track a low cost pilot production facility.

The possibilities for enriching silicon and other raw materials are enormous and could obviously lead to a huge range of benefits – if they could only be commercialised.

The purchase of Solar Systems in 2010 was thus another logical step and great diversification for Goldsworthy and his investors; a bet in every way it seemed. A play upstream in uranium enrichment. A play at large-scale halfway down the value chain with CPV. A play at the household level with PV.

The story was compelling, had backers and was led by a powerful and well connected team.

But timing – and Murphy – are problems of equal proportion.

The timing of Silex’s PV facility was just unfortunately the worst it could be. Silicon prices plummeted, module prices crashed and it ended up with too much or too little at all the wrong moments, despite a genuine crack at it and a big investment. It was tragedy to see what was at the time, Australia’s only PV factory shut down.

Solar Systems also got caught up in this because flat plate changed the economic landscape for CPV. And yet, here we are, progress has been made and now Australia has a 1.5MW CPV facility delivering energy at around $0.10c/kWh. This is real.

So Solar Systems really is Australia’s ‘other’ solar manufacturer and claim that its state of the art CPV facility has the potential for 500MW per annum; around 50 per cent of our entire annual PV demand. Here we have an ASX-listed company who has battled, tried and now delivered; the tenaciousness and dedication of Goldsworthy and his team should be celebrated.

The next year will be a crucial time for Solar Systems – will the technology deliver? Can prices be brought down further? Can the process be scaled up in manufacture to suit the second 150MW phase? For that we’ll have to wait and see.

Nigel Morris is the director of Solar Business Services.

This article was originally published by SolarBusinessServices. Republished with permission.

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