Project heating up

It is crunch time for an ambitious plan to create a socialised solar heating manufacturing plant in Morwell, with the co-operative renewing a call out for support amid ominous signs for the manufacturing sector.

After more than 16 years in the development pipeline, Earthworker Co-operative organiser Dave Kerin said the project was poised to expand into the Valley, from its current Dandenong base, once it received 500 unit orders.

“We are developing up a range of clients now just to get the solar unit orders up. Once we hit 500 we can make an order for the equipment we need to get started in Morwell,” Mr Kerin said.

“But we need to be quick about this because we are concerned about what’s going to happen to the country with private manufacturing continuing to head out of the country – we are on the opposite tangent.”

In a bold plan designed to socialise the production of renewable and energy saving products, Earthwork Co-operative aims to ultimately replace the current privatised manufacturing model, exposed to international competition and pricing.

With zero-input solar heating units the first cab off the ranks, the co-op has gained support from the trades union movement, with access to heating unit financing arrangements already enshrined into enterprise agreements at Federation University, Victoria University, Geelong City Council and Lentara UnitingCare.

However, with the recent announcement Victoria University was seeking 300 redundancies, he acknowledged the co-op was trying to “get on its feet at a precarious time”.

“Although, when you consider we are about creating a saving for households and not a cost; in that sense this is precisely the right time to do this, because Australians really need that debt eliminated out of the household,” he said.

‘”If we can do that, while at same time creating jobs for the Valley economy, that’s the magic formula.”

He said once the 500-unit target was reached, it would be a three-month turnaround before the commencement of Morwell manufacturing, which in the first instance would involve local production of the tank’s outer jacket.

“Over time, with growing orders, we would pull all the componentry production and assembly under the one roof, which in itself could save 30 per cent of production costs,” he said.

“Once we reach that stage we are talking about 50 Valley jobs.”

While a 100,000-member micro-financing campaign launched in late 2012 has only attracted a “few thousand” members, talks are underway to see political activist group Getup take on board a campaign on the co-op’s behalf.

“I’m a rusted-on union man, I came out of militant union movement and couldn’t sell peanuts to a monkey, but this is a non-profit movement – the profit for us is the jobs it creates as it expands,” he said.

Mr Kerin said discussions were ongoing with high-density unions in the construction, teaching and health fields to establish a salary sacrifice purchase option for the solar heating unit.

“We have new spaces opening up but we want to lead this at the front from Gippsland, but solar water is only beginning – we chose that because only three per cent of households have solar heating – it’s going to be a strong growth area,” he said.