More than 200 people rallied on October 11, supporting former employees of liquidating company Solar Systems and calling on the federal and state governments to rescue the company's solar power plant project in Mildura. Solar Systems went into administration after failing to find enough investors to continue the project.
Former Solar Systems research engineer David Turner read a list of demands endorsed by the majority of former employees.
Turner asked all supporters to pressure their local MPs, and also their superannuation funds, to invest in the project. he said otherwise it was likely that Solar Systems would be bought by a company that would take its ideas and projects overseas.
Solar Systems is already operating small-scale solar plants in central Australia, using its CS500 concentrated solar photovoltaic dishes. These use a large concave dish of mirrors, which turns to follow the sun, while concentrating the reflected light on a smaller solar panel.
The main materials are the mirror and dish, which are relatively cheap. As a result, it saves on the cost of the photovoltaic cell, which can also be upgraded as more effective solar cells are developed. The company's website says the CS500 unit is both cheaper (per watt) than traditional solar panels, and produces up to 30% more electricity.
The government had already promised $125 million to support the Mildura project under the Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund. But Turner said only $500,000 had been delivered.
He told Green Left Weekly that federal resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson had disingenuously claimed the company's "funding milestones haven't been met — but they are not until 2011, and we were on track!"
Carole Wilkinson from the local group Yarra Climate Action Now told the rally: "The government didn't leave building our coal-fired electricity system to the private sector; if they had it would never have been built.
"We are facing a climate emergency and the need for an urgent transition to 100% renewable energy has never been greater. The government must lead in this transition, just as they led in the transition to coal-fired electricity a century ago."
Melbourne Greens candidate Adam Bandt said the factory was in the seat of Melbourne, the only Labor/Greens marginal seat in the country, and called on the protesters to help tip it over for the Greens.
Australian Manufacturing Workers Union state environment officer Colleen Gibbs demanded the government take measures to protect the entitlements of workers whose employers go into liquidation. Solar Systems directly employed about 160 people.
New production lines had just been installed to mass produce the components for their CS500 units when the company went into liquidation. Only 40 employees are left in the factory while the administrators search for a buyer, and all face losing their entitlements.
GetUp! national director Simon Sheik launched GetUp!'s ReEnergise Australia campaign at the rally. ReEnergise Australia aims to door-knock areas such as the Melbourne electorate. Sheik called for "an immediate commitment from the federal government to support the reinstatement of those workers who've already lost their jobs and funding to secure those still working on this important project".
Rally organiser Chris Breen announced a further protest for October 30, the day the administration of the plant is due to wrap up, at 5.30pm on the steps of Victorian parliament. Visit www.savesolarsystems.wordpress.com for more details.