Get in on the ground floor: how apartments can join the solar boom



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Getting your strata committee to agree to solar panels is tricky, but it can be done.
Stucco, Author provided

Bjorn Sturmberg, Macquarie University

While there are now more solar panels in Australia than people, the many Australians who live in apartments have largely been locked out of this solar revolution by a minefield of red tape and potentially uninformed strata committees.

In the face of these challenges, Stucco, a small co-operative housing block in Sydney, embarked on a mission to take back the power. Hopefully their experiences can serve as a guide to how other apartment-dwellers can more readily go solar.

From an energy perspective, Stucco was a typical apartment block: each of its eight units had its own connection to the grid and was free to choose its own retailer, but was severely impeded from choosing to supply itself with on-site renewable energy.

Things changed in late 2015 when the co-op was awarded an Innovation Grant from the City of Sydney with a view to becoming the first apartment block in Australia to be equipped with solar and batteries.

A central part of Stucco’s plan was to share the locally produced renewable energy by converting the building into an “embedded network”, whereby the building has a single grid connection and manages the metering and billing of units internally.

Such a conversion seemed like an ideal solution for solar on apartments, but turned into an ideological battle with the electricity regulator that took months and hundreds of hours of pro bono legal support to resolve.

Layout of Stucco as solar powered embedded network.
Sonia Millway

In this way the Stucco project grew to embody the struggle at the heart of the Australian electricity market: a battle between choice and control, between current regulations that mandate consumers to choose between incumbent retailers, and the public’s aspirations for green self-sufficiency.

A chicken and egg problem

Embedded networks have been around for decades. Yet if the Australian Energy Regulator had its way, they would be banned as soon as possible.

The reason for this is that they inhibit consumers’ choice of retailer: consumers are forced to buy their electricity from the building’s embedded network management company, which may exploit its monopoly power.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. At least one company in Germany allows apartment residents to buy power either from their preferred grid retailer or from the building’s solar-powered embedded network. This business model relies on Germany’s smart meter standards that ensure all market participants can access the data they require.

We currently find ourselves in a standoff. The regulator is waiting on companies to offer solar powered embedded networks that include retail competition, while companies are waiting on the regulator to create an accessible playing field that would make such services viable.

The recently released Finkel Report touches on this by recommending a “review of the regulation of individual power systems and microgrids”.

Stucco members celebrating signing the installation contract with Solaray.
Monique Duggan

Stucco’s bespoke solution

In the absence of such a solution, Stucco made a unique agreement with the regulator: the co-op committed to cover fully the costs of installing a grid meter for any unit whose occupant wishes to exit the embedded network in the future.

Such a commitment was feasible because Stucco’s residents, as co-op members, have direct input into the management of the network including controlling prices (that are mandated to be cheaper than any grid offer). But it is difficult to image regular strata committees accepting such liabilities.

Embedded networks are therefore not the best general solution for retrofitting solar on apartments, at least not under current regulations. This is unfortunate because they represent the best utilisation of an apartment block’s solar resource (Stucco’s system provides more than 75% of the building’s electricity) and are therefore increasingly being adopted by developers.

Advice for apartments

The good news for residents of existing apartments is that there are easier routes to installing solar. The even better news is that the cost of solar systems has plummeted (and continues to do so), while retail rates continue to skyrocket, so much so that body corporates are reporting rates of return of 15-20% on their solar investments.

The recommended options for apartments are epitomised by the old adage “keep it simple”. They fall into two categories: a single solar system to power the common area, or multiple smaller systems powering individual units. Which of these is best suited to a particular apartment depends primarily on the building’s size (as a proxy for its energy demand).

Decision tree for solar power on apartments.
Bjorn Sturmberg

For buildings with 1 square metre of sunny roof space per 2m² of floor space (typically blocks up three stories high), it is worth installing a solar system for each unit, as these will typically be well matched to unit’s consumption.

Taller buildings (with less sunshine per apartment) are better off installing a single system for the common area, particularly if this contains power-hungry elements such as elevators or heating and cooling systems.

But here’s the crux: no apartment can install solar without the political support of its strata committee. While this hurdle has historically tripped up many initiatives, increased public awareness has created a groundswell of support. Plus you may need fewer votes than you think.

Myth of the Special Resolution.
Christine Byrne – Green Strata

To improve the chances of overcoming this barrier I have put together a solar-powered apartment pitch deck, available here.

While this article focuses on solar, it is important to remember that the first priority for any building should be to improve energy efficiency, by installing items such as LED lights, modern appliances, and insulation and draft proofing. For advice on these opportunities see the City of Sydney’s Smart Green Apartments website and the Smart Blocks website.

The ConversationLastly, adding batteries to an apartment solar system creates extra challenges, for instance fire-prevention planning. But it allows for far greater energy independence and resilience, and a chance to join the future of distributed energy currently being enjoyed by so many of Australia’s non-strata householders.

Stucco Co-operative’s 43.2 kWh battery system.
Bjorn Sturmberg

Bjorn Sturmberg, Associate Lecturer in Physics, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Land clearing on the rise as legal ‘thinning’ proves far from clear-cut


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A ‘thinned’ landscape, which provides far from ideal habitat for many species.
Author provided

April Reside, The University of Queensland; Anita J Cosgrove, The University of Queensland; Jennifer Silcock, The University of Queensland; Leonie Seabrook, The University of Queensland, and Megan C Evans, The University of Queensland

Land clearing is accelerating across eastern Australia, despite our new research providing a clear warning of its impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, regional and global climate, and threatened native wildlife.

Policies in place to control land clearing have been wound back across all Australian states, with major consequences for our natural environment.

One of the recent policy changes made in Queensland and New South Wales has been the introduction of self-assessable codes that allow landholders to clear native vegetation without a permit. These codes are meant to allow small amounts of “low-risk” clearing, so that landholders save time and money and government can focus on regulating activities that have bigger potential impacts on the environment.

However, substantial areas of native forest are set to be cleared in Queensland under the guise of vegetation “thinning”, which is allowed by these self-assessable codes. How did this happen?

Thin on the ground

Thinning involves the selective removal of native trees and shrubs, and is widely used in the grazing industry to improve pasture quality. It has been argued that thinning returns the environment back to its “natural state” and provides better habitat for native wildlife. However, the science supporting this practice is not as clear-cut as it seems.

Vegetation “thickening” is part of a natural, dynamic ecological cycle. Australia’s climate is highly variable, so vegetation tends to grow more in wetter years and then dies off during drought years. These natural cycles of thickening and thinning can span 50 years or more. In most areas of inland eastern Australia, there is little evidence for ongoing vegetation thickening since pastoral settlement.

Thinning of vegetation using tractors, blades and other machinery interrupts this natural cycle, which can make post-drought recovery of native vegetation more difficult. Loss of tree and shrub cover puts native wildlife at much greater risk from introduced predators like cats, and aggressive, “despotic” native birds. Thinning reduces the diversity of wildlife by favouring a few highly dominant species that prefer open vegetation, and reduces the availability of old trees with hollows.

Many native birds and animals can only survive in vegetation that hasn’t been cleared for at least 30 years. So although vegetation of course grows back after clearing, for native wildlife it’s a matter of quality, not just quantity.

Land clearing by stealth?

Thinning codes in Queensland and New South Wales allow landholders to clear vegetation that has thickened beyond its “natural state”. Yet there is little agreement on what the “natural state” is for many native vegetation communities.

Under the Queensland codes, up to 75% of vegetation in an area can be removed without a permit, and in New South Wales thinning can reduce tree density to a level that is too low to support natural ecosystems.

All of this thinning adds up. Since August 2016, the Queensland government has received self-assessable vegetation clearing code notifications totalling more than 260,000 hectares. These areas include habitat for threatened species, and ecosystems that have already been extensively cleared.

It may be that the actual amount of vegetation cleared under thinning codes is less than the notifications suggest. But we will only know for sure when the next report on land clearing is released, and by then it will be too late.

Getting the balance right

Vegetation policy needs to strike a balance between protecting the environment and enabling landholders to manage their businesses efficiently and sustainably. While self-regulation makes sense for some small-scale activities, the current thinning codes allow large areas of vegetation to be removed from high-risk areas without government oversight.

Thinning codes should only allow vegetation to be cleared in areas that are not mapped as habitat for threatened species or ecosystems, and not to an extent where only scattered trees are left standing in a landscape. Stronger regulation is still needed to reduce the rate of land clearing, which in Queensland is now the highest in a decade.

Protecting native vegetation on private land reduces soil erosion and soil salinity, improves water quality, regulates climate, and allows Australia’s unique plants and animals to survive. Landholders who preserve native vegetation alongside farming provide essential services to the Australian community, and should be rewarded. We need long-term incentives to allow landholders to profit from protecting vegetation instead of clearing it.

Our research has shown that Australian governments spend billions of dollars trying to achieve the benefits already provided by native vegetation, through programs such as the Emissions Reduction Fund, the 20 Million Trees program and Reef Rescue. Yet far more damage is inflicted by under-regulated clearing than is “fixed” by these programs.

The ConversationImagine what could be achieved if we spent that money more effectively.

April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Anita J Cosgrove, Research Assistant in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Jennifer Silcock, Post-doctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland; Leonie Seabrook, Landscape Ecologist, The University of Queensland, and Megan C Evans, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Environmental Policy, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.