In 1986, Kim Atkinson turned up to his first Appropriate Technology Retailers’ Association of Australia (ATRAA) meeting where he was told that he was mad to invest in the solar industry.
Mr Atkinson had recently bought his Adelaide-based company, Natural Technology Systems, and as a new member of the industry, he was invited along to the ATRAA meeting in Kempsie, New South Wales. At this meeting of about half a dozen people, a fellow member – still involved in the solar industry today – raised his concern that Mr Atkinson had actually invested in solar. “You paid real money for a solar business? You’re nuts! It’s all finished; we’re all burnt out,” he was told.
Twenty-two years later, 300 people are expected at this year’s ATRAA conference in Melbourne and, despite some setbacks, Australia’s solar industry is growing.
ATRAA was formed in 1979 when four retail businessmen specialising in environmentally desirable products for self sufficient living held the inaugural ATRAA meeting in Toronto, just north of Newcastle in New South Wales. Stephen Ingrouille from Melbourne business Going Solar, Adrian Hogg from Queensland’s Alternatives Shop, Brian England from Self Sufficiency Supplies and Jerry Smith from Environmental Harmony, both in New South Wales, came together to talk about their work and their industry.Article continues below…
Still going strong in business today, Mr Ingrouille says the meeting was an enlightening affair. “We all thought that we were the only business of our kind in Australia and then we discovered each other at the same time,” he says. “So we basically just got together, had a meeting, and it has been going from strength to strength.”
Promoting solar, self-sufficiency products and lifestyle, Mr Ingrouille says that ATRAA has always been a very informal, amorphous group. He outlined ATRAA’s reason for existence in a media release in 1994 after 50 dealers met in Canberra for the 17th annual conference.
"ATRAA has had enduring success as the avenue for bringing together, on an informal basis, industry members from across brand names and across states. It allows retailers to discuss problems with the aim of continually raising the standard of the renewable technology industry."
While ATRAA’s current focus is on the solar photovoltaic industry, initially its scope was much wider. ATRAA began as a grass roots movement aimed at promoting self sufficiency products from solar, wind and hydro systems to organic gardening supplies, flour mills and grain grinders.
Mr England emphasises the informal nature of an association that has grown steadily over the years.
“We didn’t want any formalities, we didn’t want any minutes and paperwork, we were just there to network and to assist each other. We weren’t trying to do any lobbying; it was purely a mutual assistance group,” he reflects.
“Over the years more and more people came into the industry and became part of the organisation. It was very, very casual and like we were all one big family.”
Connecting Australia’s solar retailers A major achievement of ATRAA – which (as it moved from state to state) was hosted by different retailers – was the solidarity and strength it brought to solar retailers as an emerging and growing but quite isolated industry.
“I think the main thing that made ATRAA successful all these years is the industry itself,” says Mr Atkinson. “The people in the industry were so isolated, in that no one else did what they did and they had no one to talk to. And for them coming together once a year, they treated it as a holiday but it was a real banding of people with the same ideology and they shared their experiences.”
He remembers when he hosted meetings in Adelaide. “I ran it here twice in Adelaide,” he says. “The first one I ran was at the Prospect Library and we did it and had a barbeque out the back with eskies full of beer and soft drinks and then we had a dinner.”
Products were the focus of the early ATRAA meetings, where retailers would review the products they were using and new ones on the market. In this way, ATRAA became the place where manufacturers could go and promote and launch new products to 50 to 100 distributors or dealers at once.
Initially, however, manufacturers and product dealers were not so welcome at the annual ATRAA meeting. Sharing common experiences with faulty equipment, retailers were able to put pressure on solar manufacturers and suppliers to improve their products.
Mr Ingrouille speaks of the initial naivety of the industry’s retailers who were enthusiastic about the environmentally beneficial products they were selling, assuming that everyone they did business with felt the same way.
“We were incredibly naïve because we assumed that the manufacturers were treating us fairly and also being honest with us. We believed we were doing the right thing – selling good products – and that everybody else in the industry would think the same, including manufacturers,” he says. “It wasn’t until we got together that we realised that we were being played off one to the other by [some] manufacturers.”
Realising this was a major step forward for the retailers, but also for the industry. As Mr Atkinson says “It was great because this information was fed back to the manufacturers who then could take it on board and come back the following year and say ‘Hey, we fixed that! It’s going real well!’”
Another gain that came out of the yearly conference were the site visits. Mr England says that these were useful because many people were still learning about the solar technologies they sold.
“We were quite often on a learning curve with the way things were installed and constructed,” he says. “And part of those meetings was that they were rotated round the country as they are now, so whoever hosted it, would arrange site visits of installation work so we could see how somebody else did things, and we could learn how to do things in a different and hopefully a better way.”
As ATRAA grew, so did the venue for the conference. At one meeting in Cairns, Mr Atkinson reflects, the only place large enough to accommodate everyone was the casino.
“It was just lucky because they had just revamped the casino there and they had a free Jimmy Barnes concert on the front lawn. I can remember people in the industry standing there with a case of beer between their legs, dancing and jiving to Jimmy Barnes.”
After years of being hosted by different retailers, ATRAA became part of the Solar Energy Industry Association, then the BCSE and today, the Clean Energy Council.
Mr Ingrouille adds that ATRAA has always been about keeping the industry on track; a place where for a couple of days people in the industry talk honestly about their products.
“ATRAA is about sharing information,” he says, “and the quote that I use almost every time I speak is that ‘all boats go up on a rising tide’. By sharing information even with people who are your direct competitors then the whole industry is better off and then everyone is better off.
“We always say we would much rather have competitors who are doing the right thing, who are installing systems to a high standard and are being honest. They are the best competitors in the world and if they win sales that is great because we win our fair share.”
The industry today Comparing solar to other clean energy sources, Mr England says that while business in the solar industry has had its ups and downs and has often been difficult, its a technology that has always been available.
Emphasising the importance of the mutual support ATRAA meetings and the association fostered, he says that because it was fringe technology and because the industry has always been on the leading edge, it has not always been an easy ride for solar retailers.
However the continuing involvement of ATRAA’s founding and early members in the conference today suggests the durability of a promising renewable energy source and a committed workforce. Not only has ATRAA brought the industry together, it has grown more effective in its lobbying, with the introduction of training and standards= proving another key turning point.
“ATRAA has been an enormously successful institution and the fact that it’s still here some 30 years later is really fantastic,” says Mr Ingrouille.
He admits that the industry has recently been struck a blow by the changes to the federal solar rebate scheme but he is confident that it will find its feet again.
Mr England echoes this belief when he says that governments have tried to help the industry with short term solutions but that long term policies and assistance, such as a gross national feed-in tariff, are key to driving the industry forward.
Evolving from a meeting of four retailers to a highly successful conference and exhibition that now opens its doors to the public, ATRAA’s success and many achievements are clear. It is perhaps Mr Atkinson who sums up the ATRAA’s achievement most strikingly.
“The thing that amazes me the most,” he says, “is that when I first started back then in 1986 my aim was to get people to talk about solar panels like they talk about their breakfast cereals. And we’ve achieved that and that is because in those early years all the shows we went to and did, and all the promotion, all we did was stand there and talk to people about new technology. Now people actually ask me what brand I sell. That’s where we’ve gone to.”