Steps towards solar on your apartment building
Is solar right for your apartment building?
Nearly half of Yarra residents live in multi-unit buildings, and this trend is expected to increase. There are apartment buildings around Melbourne that have successfully installed solar and are enjoying the benefits of clean energy from the sun, and electricity bill savings. Solar on apartments is more complex than for freestanding homes and requires working with your owners’ corporation, other residents and an experienced solar company.
A solar company with experience installing solar on apartments or an independent advisory service, such as the Yarra Energy Foundation, can provide professional advice on the best options for your building. Many options depend on how much roof space is available. For example, you might be able to install a system that powers the common areas, even if there’s not enough roof space to power everyone’s apartment. As a first step, look at your roof or aerial images online for existing structures, such as common rooftop spaces or infrastructure.
Some options for apartments are likely to take several months to a year to implement, but this can be well worth the effort in bill savings and environmental benefits. A committed group of residents can help to keep things moving. Do you have neighbours who can join you in building enthusiasm among the owners’ corporation?
What are the options?
The following are the most common ways for apartments to benefit from solar.
Solar to power common areas
Solar is installed on the shared rooftop, and the electricity is used to power common areas. This is often the simplest solution, since only one electricity meter and electricity account is involved. It can also be a good option where roof space is limited, or if there are extensive common areas with high energy usage, such as lifts, a gym, pool or large air-conditioned common areas.
It is easy to split the benefit equally, through a reduction in strata fees for common areas. As this option is limited to powering the common areas, so there is no reduction to any owner or tenant’s electricity bill.
Individual solar systems
Another option is to install individual systems connected to the electricity meters of individual units. This can work well for low-rise buildings of three storeys or less, so that roof space may be allocated for each individual apartment’s solar system.
This can be a simple way for one or more residents to get solar even if not everyone is involved. You’ll likely need approval from your owners’ corporation to proceed. Consider asking your neighbours if they would be interested in going solar together. The more enthusiasm you can build, and the more shared benefit there is, the easier it may be to get approval for your own system. You may also be able to negotiate a better price if you install multiple systems together through the same solar company.
Allocating sunny areas of roof space equitably is important, because even if some owners choose not to get solar installed now, they may want to retain access to roof space for their apartment in the future. Depending on the roof space available and the number of apartments, solar systems may need to be relatively small.
Once the systems are installed, this option works just like solar on a freestanding home, with no need for additional metering or monitoring equipment, and no interaction between your solar system and your neighbours’ systems.
Solar sharing among apartment neighbours
New technologies are making it possible to more easily and equitably share the benefits of solar among apartment residents, even in high density buildings. For example, new technology from a Richmond-based company enables residents of apartments to share the benefits of a single large solar system and see reductions in their energy bills. This technology splits solar usage equally among participating apartments and businesses in the same building.
This option allows residents to opt-in, so it can work well even if not all owners want solar. Because this kind of technology maximises the amount of solar used within the building, it can also be a good option where roof space is limited, relative to the number of apartments.
With new technologies developing, it is expected that more providers will launch similar offers or other solutions to enable solar sharing. If this kind of solution seems right for your building, carry out research to find the latest available options. Unlocking savings on individual residents’ energy bills can be well worth the additional cost of enabling technology.
Embedded electricity networks
With an embedded network, all apartments are connected to the grid through a single meter, and purchase electricity from the same electricity retailer. These are more common in larger, high-density apartments. Better electricity rates can be negotiated through the combined buying power of the whole building. Being part of an embedded network requires all apartments to be involved, and usually means it is difficult or expensive to change energy retailers for individuals who want to opt out.
This option is well suited to new builds, as it can be difficult to set up in an existing building. If you are already part of an embedded network, you may be able to install solar which is owned by the Embedded Network Operator and on-sold to apartments in your building at a lower cost. This can be a good option for buildings with an existing embedded network where all apartment owners want to participate.
Another option is a green embedded network, where the Embedded Network Operator supplies 100% GreenPower to the building at a bulk purchasing rate.
Visit the Australian Energy Regulator for more information about embedded networks.
Power Purchase Agreements (PPA)
In this option, your owners’ corporation agrees to collectively purchase energy from a renewable source, either from an on-site or off-site solar installation. A PPA maximises your collective buying power to secure a lower cost of renewable energy.
This option does not require any changes to metering or wiring, but does mean participating apartments will receive two bills – one from your regular electricity provider, and one for your portion of energy from the PPA. The total of the two new bills will be less than your previous energy bill, saving you money.
Buy renewable energy through your retailer (GreenPower)
If you decide that none of these solar solutions are right for your building, you can still choose renewable energy through your retailer. When you choose 100% GreenPower from your electricity company, every megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity that you use is matched by a MWh of renewable energy supplied to the Victorian electricity network.
Switching to GreenPower is easy and you can do it now. By switching to GreenPower while you’re going through the process of getting solar on your building, you can start using renewable energy now.
Find out more about purchasing certified GreenPower.
New and emerging options
There are a number of new ways to buy renewable energy that are starting to become available. These include virtual power plants, microgrids, Solar Gardens and other ‘offsite solar’ solutions, software platforms offering energy trading and sharing, and investing in community energy projects. If solar is not right for your apartment, or if you install solar on your building but you’re keen to do more, watch this space. Many of these solutions are now in trial or pilot phases, or limited in availability, but may become more widely available as technologies advance and regulations change.
Other things to consider
There are additional costs involved in complex solar installations like on apartment buildings. Talk to a reputable solar retailer or an independent advisory service like the Yarra Energy Foundation to find out if these will apply to your building. Some of the most common additional charges include:
- Additional metering and monitoring costs for equipment to allow the solar to be equitably shared between residents. Each apartment typically has its own electricity meter and electricity account, but the rooftop solar system on an apartment block may be shared. If the energy is to be shared across apartments, you may need additional equipment.
- Additional installation costs for tilt frames, longer cabling, and other hardware to install solar on, for example, a flat roof, a concrete roof, or a tall building.
- Additional installation costs for equipment hire, labour and permitting. Tall buildings may require solar installers to hire equipment and machinery such as cranes, and there may be permitting and labour costs if public property is affected, such as road closures during installation.
- Additional costs in the planning and approvals stage. For complex installations, you may wish to get independent advice or an independent solar feasibility study from a professional. For some solutions, there may be additional costs for legal advice or regulatory fees.
In most apartments there are a mix of renters and owners. Some solutions overcome this challenge, for example by allowing individual apartments to opt in or out. There are also ways to include tenants and landlords so that both can share the benefit. For more information, see our guidance for rental properties.