Aussie women: the solar power pioneers

Caroline Le Couteur cooking on parabolic mirror. ANZSES Canberra.
Sun Source was Australia’s first solar panel retailer, started by a hippy woman nearly 50 years ago. Kassia Klinger uncovers the story.

Many will know about Sun Cable’s recent plan to capture and export the Northern Territory’s abundant sunshine to the small island state of Singapore, via an undersea cable thousands of kilometres long. Perhaps not as many know about the similarly trailblazing story of Sun Source in the 1980s, which began deep in a valley above Nimbin in northern NSW, when its owner set up solar panels on her chook shed because not enough sun was hitting her cottage.

Women’s contributions are often forgotten, especially when it comes to finance and technology. In 1970s Australia, women played pivotal roles introducing solar power to our home roofs. In the 1980s, they were early adopters of permaculture, ethical investing and even sending emails. Now, at another time of great social, technological, economic, geo-political and environmental change, women are rising, and demanding their voices be heard.

In 2020, before just about every news story turned to the pandemic, there was dramatic growth in solar power installations in Australia—both household and large-scale photovoltaic (PV) systems—as well as wind power. After a slow start, many more energy-storage projects are now planned and rolling out to assist our transition from fossil fuels.

Caroline’s PVs, Nimbin, early 1980s.

Fake news, conspiracy theories and polarising political propaganda in recent years made it hard to remember that renewable energy technologies, and the industry it spawned, started with scientists slogging away, often in university labs.

Long before green energy became a booming industry, hippies living on communities in far-north New South Wales were experimenting with various forms of alternative power. One of those was Caroline Le Couteur: hippy, former economics student, feminist and a woman way ahead of her time. The early 1970s saw Le Couteur, who was a recent university graduate in the Australian Capital Territory, move to dairy-farming land on rich, red volcanic soils near Nimbin, in the lush hinterland of the state’s far north coast. The dairy industry was in free-fall.

Overseas, a massive counter-culture movement was taking place, with festivals like Woodstock making it mainstream. Woodstock was held in 1969, just one month after the Apollo 11 mission, where humans walked on the moon for the first time. Solar
panels were used by NASA on that expedition, and soon, PVs started to be installed back on our home planet. Nimbin’s Aquarius Festival happened in 1973, four years after Woodstock and 50 years ago this May.

After Aquarius, Le Couteur fought to save pristine remnant sub-tropical rainforests from logging, and helped start an alternative lifestyle community called Tuntable Falls, where she and two other members were the first to introduce solar panels. PVs were installed on the main community building as well as cottages and other homes on the shared land, and later sold to homeowners living in the scenic area now known as the Rainbow Region. Those three Tuntable Falls members were probably the first in the state, possibly even Australia, to retail solar panels. And where did they get the stock? It was surplus or rejects from NASA’s lunar missions.

At the time, the women’s liberation movement was super-charged by the introduction of the contraceptive “Pill”, later blamed for the dramatic loosening of sexual attitudes and behaviours. Widespread frustration about women’s oppression was showing up in music, literature and on the streets, with songs like the 1972 global hit and feminist anthem, “I Am Woman” by Australian singer-songwriter Helen Reddy. Those of a certain age will now be humming “hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore”.

The environmental movement was going global. Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book, Silent Spring, released in 1962, warned about the harmful effects of pesticides such as DDT on the earth’s delicate systems. The chemical defoliant Agent Orange, used by Americans in the Vietnam War, had a devastating impact on people and the environment. A campaign to divest from US company Dow Chemicals, which manufactured Agent Orange, helped end the war and was a pivotal time in the growing ethical investment movement. In Australia, ethical investing started in the early 1980s, branching out of permaculture—the organic farming and systems-design methodology created by Tasmanians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

In the 1980s, Mollison inspired others to sow seeds of ethical investing and pioneered “positive screening”—a practice of investing in profitable companies providing useful products and services that don’t harm people or the environment.

Robyn Francis, Epicentre office, 1988.

In 1973, after the United Kingdom joined what is now known as the European Union, the Australian economy was hit hard. Until then, shiploads of cheese and dried milk had been exported to Britain, but once the UK increased trade with Europe, the Australian dairy export market fell off a cliff. Many Aussie dairy-farming businesses were decimated.

Which brings us back to struggling dairy farmers in Nimbin, the Aquarius Festival and the Tuntable Falls community. Many people flocking to the hills found the cost of connecting to town or grid power via electricity poles and wires too expensive. Some were opposed on ideological grounds, wanting to be energy-independent and have less impact on the environment.

Solar for hot water wasn’t the priority, as many had woodchip water heaters. But safety became a critical issue when a candle, used for lighting, started a house fire that took a life.
Le Couteur installed a tower wind turbine for personal use and introduced solar power by becoming a re-seller of PV panels. The silicon cells were bought from Solarex, the only apparent supplier at the time, which had the access to NASA supplies. Le Couteur’s Nimbin-based business, Sun Source started in 1974 and grew to supply others beyond the Tuntable Falls community.

Le Couteur partnered with Karl McLaughlin and they worked on the business for some years. Eleven years later, she left Nimbin and returned to Canberra in 1985 as a single mum, and enrolled in the then “new” subject of information technology, specialising in databases.

Karl, who transitioned to Karli, co-founded the Rainbow Power Company, which still operates in Nimbin today. At the time there were others dabbling in alternatives like hydro-power, using Glockeman gravity-fed pumps and Pelton waterwheels. Peter van der Wyk, renowned as Peter “Pedals”, generated power by sitting on a stationary bike and pedalling.

Karli, along with two others—Dave C (as he asks to be known) and Jack van Hest—started a business in 1985, the same year Caroline left. One Wednesday, each invested $30 and set up a stall at the Channon Markets. To their surprise, they turned their combined $90 investment into $150, a 68 percent return just four days later.

Le Couteur wasn’t the only tech-friendly hippy chick at the time. One of the first women to formally study permaculture was Robyn Francis, who was joined by another pioneer, Alice Weiss, on the first female-only course. Early permaculture courses seemed to only attract men, so Mollison and Holmgren acted to correct the imbalance. Francis still runs a permaculture education centre and demonstration farm, Djanbung Gardens, in Nimbin today.

With the World Wide Web yet to be born, some people in the 1980s communicated via closed online networks such as the London-based nonprofit GreenNet and the USA’s San Francisco-based PeaceNet. In Australia, Ian Peter set up the first internet service provider, or ISP, Pegasus Networks in 1989, when modems made that annoying electronic squeal while connecting. Francis was given an email account to help her continue with global permaculture, as well as ethical investing research and promotion. Peter asked what email address she’d like, to which she replied, “I dunno.” Peter said, “How does First Lady sound?” and the rest is her-story.

Caroline Le Couteur, demo of PV at Nimbin.

In 2017, while travelling through northern NSW researching these topics, I talked with solar pioneers to gather their recollections. By coincidence, it was Rainbow Power Company’s official 30th anniversary, and I asked Dave C, “Who was the first person to sell solar panels in Australia?” Without hesitation, he said, “Caroline Le Couteur”.

It seems her contributions in general have been forgotten, ignored or even worse, deleted. Le Couteur was an early and active member of two groups linked with international networks which are still going strong today: The Australia New Zealand Solar Energy Society, now the Smart Energy Council, and the Alternative Technology Association, now Renew, which publishes this magazine.

Le Couteur also went on to build a successful career in financial services, specialising in ethical investing, which included backing the early renewable energy industry. As an essential early employee of Australian Ethical Investment, which began in 1986—a year after she returned to the ACT—Le Couteur went on to become a board member and help the fund manager retrofit a Canberra building for their headquarters. It was the first truly green building in the ACT, and only the third in Australia to receive a 6-star environmental rating in 2007.

1978 book cover, PERMACULTURE ONE. Installation of Catherine’s wind turbine. Robyn Francis, 1989.

Le Couteur went on to serve in the ACT’s Legislative Assembly from 2008 as a state Greens member for two separate terms over eight years. As was her desire, in her second term, she was involved in planning decisions, as well as passage of legislation committing the ACT to zero emissions by 2050.

Le Couteur retired in 2020, the same year that the ACT received 100 % of its electricity from renewable sources, including solar, wind, hydro and methane from waste landfill sites. Gas is still used in homes for heating and businesses, which is of course a potent greenhouse gas. Yet the source of electricity has leapt towards fossil fuel-free status over the last two decades. It’s quite ironic that as debate raged in federal parliament in Canberra about the viability and economics of renewable energy, the Big House itself was powered by the ACT’s own renewable energy.

So, while a surprise to some, it was these much-maligned hippy tree-huggers who five decades ago spawned the renewable energy industry that is now mainstream, forming an integral part of the energy mix that powers Australian homes, businesses and industries today. And who knows, it may soon become a major export industry, and we could become a green-energy superpower thanks to stored solar, green hydrogen and even green ammonia—all because of our First Ladies.

Kassia Klinger
Kassia Klinger lives in the NSW Hunter Region. Her non-fiction book Confessions of ethical inve$ting was published in 2014. Klinger has since penned two novels plus short stories inspired by real people plus true events and seeks publishers to get her work to reach broader audiences. She has a background in financial services and before that marketing/public relations, a BA in journalism and Master of Management in sustainable leadership. She’s a permaculture gardener, Koala Support plus Land carer and self-described trivia tragic. Editorial support by Catherine Szentkuti and Joanna Atherfold Finn.

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