Australia now boasts the highest rate of household rooftop solar in the world. With the promise of cheaper electricity from solar panels, decreasing technology costs and climate change action top of mind amongst many, it’s not surprising that residents living in apartment blocks are keen to get some skin in the game.
Here we unpack some of the key benefits of solar power for apartments, plus considerations and challenges. We also ‘shine’ a light on a couple of local buildings that have made solar happen.
Don’t forget to tune in to this free lunchtime webinar on 29 April to hear fromNSW Strata Lawyer Amanda Farmer explain recent legislative amendments making approvals for sustainability infrastructure (like solar) in strata buildings a little easier. She will also be talking about Solar By-Laws.
If you’re reading this, then you’re probably across the perks of solar power. But let’s summarise.
- Reduced electricity bills
Using solar power produced for free on your roof means less money you’ll need to pay your electricity provider for power from the main grid. You’ll also get money from them for any solar power that you export (when you aren’t home and using power). Solar power also helps to future-proof your building against potential electricity price increases.
- Good financial return on investment
Solar power offers a solid return on investment over the system’s 25-year lifetime (up to as much as 20%). These days you are lucky to get 1% return on investing the same amount of money in the bank. For investors, installing solar power also offers an attractive tax-deductible investment.
- Increased property value
Buyers are increasingly discerning about the extra sustainability and cost-saving features in a home. It’s a safe bet that the cost of a solar power system will be reflected in additional property value.
- Good for the climate and our environment
Clean green energy means reduced carbon emissions from coal-based power, helping to reduce climate change impacts.
10 key considerations
1. Energy efficiency first
The cheapest electricity is the energy you don’t use. Reducing your power consumption first – for example, with energy efficient lighting, equipment and appliances (in-apartments and common areas) – is cost-effective and also likely to shrink the solar power system needed.
2. Roofs are not created equal
Since solar panels are installed on roofs, their condition, material, pitch, shading, available space and amenity are key factors in determining if, and how much, solar is feasible for a building.
While south-facing pitched roofs are generally not ideal for solar, other orientations are generally fine. Waterproof membranes on flat concrete roofs may warrant upgrades before solar is installed, so needs to be factored into budget considerations. Shading (current and future) can compromise the output of a system, and plant equipment or aerials can limit the space for panels. Check when the roof was last replaced – it’s best to time solar power with any upcoming roof replacements.
Solar installers will need to be able to safely access the roof to install the panels. For example, via a driveway, fire stairs, side road or path, balconies, through the roof. Be aware that for higher buildings, scissor lifts, cranes or other similar hoisting equipment can add to the cost of a system.
4. Electrical infrastructure
Old unruly electricity meters and switchboards are unfortunately common in our local area. Check whether the solar power can be feasibly connected to your existing switchboard and whether an upgrade will be needed. Your installer maybe able to organize an accredited electrician to provide a quote for this work. Best to do this early on to avoid any unnecessary surprises.
5. Sharing the benefits
Depending on the size of your building and energy use, power from solar panels can be distributed in various ways.
Common areas only – Typically for larger buildings with limited roof size and where there is daytime electricity use (e.g. lighting in car parks/fire stairs/hallways, pool pumps etc.). The system is owned by the Owners Corporation (OC) so owners benefit from reduced utility bills.
Penkivil Gardens solar: The Strata Committee of this eight-storey apartment block of 48 unit recently installed 30 panels on its rooftop to power their common areas. The system will reduce their energy bills by 25% (around $2.5k each year). Read more here.
Power of the sun: Mayor of Waverley, Paula Masselos with Gino Farina, a strata owner and Committee member at Penkivil Gardens apartments
Individual use – Electricity from the solar panels are distributed to the individual apartments. The tenants benefit from reduced bills. Often best for smaller buildings where common area electricity consumption is low. Since the solar power systems are installed on common property owned by the OC, a Solar By-Law is needed.
Francis St, Bondi Beach: Owners of the 5 units in this small building (4 owner occupiers, 1 tenanted) installed 40 panels (12.5kW) on their north-west facing pitched tiled roof over 4 years ago, powering individual units (image below).
Shared across apartments (and common areas) – It’s possible to directly connect the solar to common property & tenancies. New behind-the-meter solar-sharing technology platforms like Allume are enabling this solar power to be shared equally and optimally across units and common areas. Allume works typically with buildings of 5-45 units. It’s not necessary that all units opt-in for this model for it to work, but it can be a lot easier to approve and finance through the owners corporation if it’s for the whole building.
Embedded networks (typically in newer larger buildings) can also share solar to units, managed via an embedded network operator.
6. Seek an experienced quality solar installer
Look for solar power installers that have experience working with strata buildings and a good reputation. They should also have Clean Energy Council accreditation. Ideally get at least 2-3 quotes and ask them to come on site to ensure the quote provided is accurate, includes a good assessment of electrical infrastructure and access, and minimizes any surprises down the track.
Check if the installer offers a workmanship warranty for the installation (typically 5-10 years).
7. Panels and inverters
Your solar system will mainly consist of panels and an inverter, and there are many different products on the market. It’s good to check warranties: for panels expect 10-25 years, for inverters expect 10-15 years. Online resources can help you compare and rank products E.g. https://www.solarquotes.com.au
You can also ask the solar installer if the system is fit for purpose e.g. for coastal environments, do the screws have higher corrosion category? And do the panels have salt mist resistance?
When assessing your quotes, be sure to ask what’s excluded in the quote (e.g. structural engineering certificate etc.), and if there are any extra inclusions like monitoring and annual maintenance checks (good to keep on top of any issues that could arise).
Be aware there is a Federal Government incentive available for solar power systems (Small Technology Certificates), and it will be taken off the upfront cost of the system.
Some installers can also offer financing options if you don’t have the upfront capital needed.
Any solar power system installed on the apartment block’s roof will require approval by the Owners’ Corporation via a special resolution. The good news is that you will now only need a simple majority of eligible votes to pass this via a ‘sustainable infrastructure resolution’ (compared to 75% previously) thanks to a recent change to the Strata Schemes Management act. Read more on this.
If the solar power system is to be installed on the roof for individual units’ use then the Owners Corporation will need to approve a Solar By-Law with details of the system and owners/s. Template Kits are available for a small cost, which can be readily completed.
There are no required Council planning approvals for Council, unless the solar power system is over 100kW in size or is in a heritage area – in which case consult the Council’s Duty Planner.
10. Other options
If a rooftop solar power system is not looking likely, but you’d still like to support renewable energy, then you can choose to buy Green Power from your electricity retailer for units and common area. It’s as easy as asking your retailer for this option.
There are also other emerging innovative models to help provide access to cheaper renewable energy to those that are currently ‘locked out’ of solar (like apartments, renters), such as ‘solar gardens’ and offsite renewable Power Purchase Agreements. Waverley Council is investigating these options and aim to make these models a focus of a future blog.
For more information
- Watch our Solar for Apartment Buildings Webinar (June 2020)
- Subscribe to our new Sustainable Apartments enewsletter (emailed quarterly to your inbox)
- Join the private Sustainable Apartments Facebook group to share knowledge, ideas and tips
- Email us a comment or question
Over the past 6 months, Waverley Council has been working with smaller strata buildings to identify and implement solar power solutions with its pilot program Solar my Strata. Our Building Futures program continues to support solar and energy-saving opportunities in larger strata buildings.
Thank you to Ethan Burns, Director of Sustainability Now for his contributions to this article.