SPLASH! caught up with executives from international solar giant, Heliocol, and they explained the genesis of the cockatoo warranty and their hopes for Australia to become the second largest solar market in the world.
Simone Bellavita is general manager of Plastic Magen, the Israeli manufacturer of solar panels under the brand names Heliocol and Sunstar, and the source of the international distribution to all corners of the globe. He and Kelly Dancer, Heliocol's Australasian representative, were in Australia for the SPLASH! Expo on the Gold coast.
With total volume of between 150,000 and 170,000 solar panels annually, Heliocol holds an enormous market share around the world. Though it is hard to quantify in global terms, an indication is that it holds a market share of up to 45 percent in the US - the largest market in the world.
In Australia, Heliocol has grown from a customer base measured in the hundreds to one measured in the thousands, selling approximately 15,000 panels per year.
As appeared in SPLASH! Magazine, 2011
Simone Bellavita says that they haven't experienced that type of growth anywhere else in the world.
"It is amazing growth," he says. "Central America was pretty good, but not as good as Australia. The difference is the culture - the understanding of solar - was here already. In many other countries we have to go through the educational process and it takes a long time."
And Heliocol is expecting the take-up rate to increase.
"Australia should become the second market in the world," says Bellavita. "After the States."
Dancer agrees. "Australia is a great solar market and we're the leader in the world in solar, have been in the States for many, many years," he says. "We see this as a very important place for us. So we set up a kind of factory directed facility here - one in Brisbane, one in Sydney, and we've got distribution throughout all capital cities and our business is growing very rapidly.
"Australia is the per capita leader in solar use. The Australian mentality to solar is stronger than it is in America," he says. "Stronger by a long way."
One of the selling points Heliocol has used to gain market penetration in Australia is the Cockatoo Warranty.
"Australia's always been a big solar pool heating market," says Dancer. "And it's always lent itself to specific types of products. We've found that our product lends itself to solving some of the challenges that the solar industry has faced with longevity and the cockatoo problems in some parts of the country.
"We've been immune from that, they don't seem to like our product. It's a more rigid product and it's also slick to them. They don't seem to be able to get their beaks onto it."
"Kelly called us at Plastic Magen and said, look, we have this problem in Australia with cockatoos," says Bellavita. "We didn't have any idea what a cockatoo is!"
"What spurred this," says Dancer, "Is that I was at a home show and I had a consumer and his children walk by, and the little bloke says: Oh look, Dad, solar! And the dad says: No, we've got cockatoos. And they walked right by. And I thought: The heck with this, we're going to lose this customer who has no idea that this product is out there. In his mind he couldn't have solar because of the cockatoos."
The product isn't entirely rigid," says Bellavita. "But it's a polypropylene compound which is much more rigid than EPDM or rubber. It's soft to the touch but it's pretty slick.
"We knew many regions in the world had problems with birds or other kinds of animals looking for water, and they didn't attack our solar panels. So we thought, maybe we are immune to that. So let's make the cockatoo warranty."
"It was a little scary to come out with it," says Dancer. "But we did, and thousands of panels later we're still holding up pretty good."
Bellavita is impressed with the Australian pool industry and the locally produced technology, speaks well of Australian products. They don't just come over and bring their own technology," he says.
"In fact, we manufacture a salt system and it came from technology right here in this country. It's been a big success for us. Plastic Magen makes this solid salt system, which we sell in the States."
One area of potential growth for solar in Australia is the commercial area, says Bellavita.
"There is tremendous potential for straight heating of big pools, or as a combined system of heating the pool and pre-heating, or even water for showers. It's gone crazy all over the world, so I believe it will come to Australia, too.
"In Central America and South America, it's nearly all commercial solar systems, Olympic pools, hotels, hospitals, industries, leather treatment," he says.
Solar can also be used to cool pools in climates where the water temperature gets too hot. In fact, it is used extensively for that purpose in Dancer's home town of Phoenix, Arizona.
"It works well," he says. "But you have to remember you can't ever cool the pool below what the night time low would be. There are 400,000 pools in Phoenix now and it has created a microclimate so it is getting more humid and staying warmer at night - each pool loses an inch or two of evaporation and it has to go somewhere."
This system was also used to cool the Atlantic Olympic pool.
In terms of global developments in the industry, Bellavita believes that plastic-based solar will continue to make inroads.
"There are a few basic parameters," he says. "One, energy costs are getting greater everywhere, and there is no doubt that solar and alternative energy will do a great deal of business. The second factor is that there will be a big problem with cost accounting because metals are getting more and more expensive. So plastic will have a greater space in the industry. So I think the trick will be to manage to manufacture products that are currently made from metal, completely in plastic. And that's quite an engineering headache. But we are working very hard on it."
Related to the increased use of plastics, is the rising price of oil [though it has since come down slightly].
"It effects the price of plastic," says Bellavita. "but I believe we have stabilised our prices. We look at the broad picture."
"You didn't feel the price impact in Australia the way they did in the States," says Dancer. "Because of the Gulf Hurricane [Katrina] and all the refineries there, the price of plastics doubled and even tripled.
"It's nice to have a global manufacturer that isn't affected just by one region, so one region can have a big event but it doesn't affect the global picture. So it's a little more stable."
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