Solar for strata & apartment blocks: Everything you need to know (almost)

Strata blocks are one of the final frontiers for rooftop solar, a ripe opportunity just waiting for the right solution. We regularly receive enquiries from apartment blocks and other strata title properties here at Solar Choice, and the same questions tend to arise in our conversations with strata clients.

 

Solar for strata is tricky: Here’s why

If you’re looking into solar for a strata block, it’s important that you understand the challenges that you’re up against – and the experiences that a lot of solar companies have in implementing solar for strata properties.

  • In a multi-unit block, each unit typically has its own electricity meter, and each meter has its own electricity account. In order to ‘split up’ the solar energy equitably, there needs to be a way to ensure that there’s a way to track how much solar energy is being produced, and which units are using how much of it.
  • In terms of building structure, strata blocks often have flat and concrete roofs, which measn additional costs when it comes to ballasting and tilting the panels
  • Furthermore, if the building is tall there may be additional costs related extra-long cable runs, and additional labour and/or machinery hire costs for transporting the panels and other equipment to the roof
  • If there is excess solar energy flowing into the grid and accruing solar feed-in credits, how are those benefits split up among the various accounts?
  • In strata blocks there are more decision makers (the body corporate, who must vote in the majority) than in a single-family household. This means that the decision-making process can be long and the outcomes more uncertain than with solar for a household.
  • On top of this, there is often a mix of renters and owner-occupiers in a strata complex. The incentives for getting solar differ depending on which you happen to be. For example, why would an owner renting out their unit want to invest in solar energy for their tenant if they’re not going to see any concrete benefit.

Talk to an experienced Solar Choice consultant about options for your Strata Building

 

Four options for solar on strata blocks

With these complications in mind, here are four potential solutions to the ‘solar on strata blocks’ problem – from most straightforward & simple to most technologically sophisticated & complex.

Solar for strata approach #1: Solar for the common areas

Each strata block has a dedicated meter for the common areas, where lights, lifts and other communal equipment run; the electricity bill associated with this meter is paid for out of strata levies. For very tall apartment blocks with limited roofspace this is usually the best option available as it is a communal cost and everyone will (or should) benefit equally from it in the form of reduced strata bills. Furthermore, the capital expenditure required to purchase such a system can be relatively small, especially if the block does not have any communal lifts, air conditioning, pools or other devices which use a large amount of electricity.

Main advantages:

  • Relative simplicity, with one solar PV system behind just the common area meter
  • All owners benefit equally through reduced common costs (usually covered by strata levies)

Main disadvantage:

  • No savings on electricity bills for individual occupants
Solar PV array installed on Manly National Building (NSW) with aide of Solar Choice

When getting quotes for your strata committee it is really important to find installers with experience installer on high-rises and concrete roof-spaces. Solar Choice has a network of installers and we can help you find the local options with the right experience.

Solar for strata approach #2: Each unit gets a separately-metered system

If the common area bills are already quite small, or if the unit owners are more interested in solar to benefit themselves or their tenants directly, then it may make sense to have a solar system installed for each unit. At this point, however, there is the question of roof allocation. This is a consideration that doesn’t come to mind for most people when they purchase a unit, but one which is sure to arise if one individual owner asks to install a solar system for their unit (unless the units are townhouses).

In this case, in the name of ‘fair share’, it makes sense for the solar-friendly (i.e. unshaded and north/west/east-facing) sections of roof to be pre-emptively divided up between all the owners. This could turn out to be complicated, especially if the roof is multi-faceted and has shading issues in more than one place. Assuming that the block has a section of roof with full and equal solar access, this challenge should be relatively clear-cut and easy to solve.

If your strata unit gets to this point, you’ll then need to work out how much each section of roof area will translate into in terms of solar panel capacity. In the end, each system may be quite small (1.5kW2kW), especially if the building is more than 2-3 stories tall and there’s significantly more floor area than there is roof area. In either case, the most financially sensible approach may be to have all of the solar systems installed at the same time and by the same company, as smaller systems tend to be more expensive per watt of capacity than larger ones, and the way to bring down the overall cost would probably be a bulk buy.

Main advantages:

  • Provided there is ample viable roof space to go around, each unit has their own solar system, wired up to their own individual meter. This means that there’s no question of whether the benefits of the solar are being shared around in an equitable way, as actual savings will come down to how individuals use energy throughout the day.
  • Each unit may have the option to own their solar PV system separately

Main disadvantages:

  • Question of how to fairly allocate available roof area between units
  • As the individual systems will be small and wired up individually, they may be expensive on a per watt basis compared to solar for stand-alone home, affecting their financial attractiveness
  • Mix of renters and owner-occupiers could mean that it’s harder to get sign-off from body corporate; this is especially important in light of the fact that solar is likely to be less expensive for each individual if a greater number of units go ahead

Solar for strata approach #3: A single shared system, with solar benefits allocated to individual apartments

This is a relatively new approach, and currently there is only one company (that we are aware of) in Australia with the technology to deliver it. Allume Energy with their SolShare solution have solved a number of the issues outlined at the top of this article.

The SolShare solution is essentially a smart diverter that enables solar energy from a single rooftop solar system to be shared between multiple apartments within the same building. To make the system as efficient as possible but also fair, the SolShare delivers the same amount of solar energy to each apartment over the course of a month, but supplies it when it’s needed by each unit.

In addition, the technology incorporates energy monitoring software, so that you know how much electricity you’re using throughout the day and when solar energy’s available.

How the Allume Energy SolShare program works. (Image via Allume Energy.)

Main advantages:

  • Any metered unit can be connected, including common light and power.
  • Units can opt-out if they don’t want to be connected.
  • The system is bought by the owners corporation, removing complications around individual roof space ownership.
  • No changes to existing metering infrastructure is required – everyone retains their right to choose their electricity retailer.
  • Participation is not mandatory; meaning only a 50% vote is required (75% in some states)

Main disadvantages:

  • The Allume solution comes at an additional upfront cost to a traditional solar system, so typically it is better if there are 5 or more owners participating
  • This is a new model that has only been deployed in a relatively small number of situations, with Allume Energy being the only company supplying this type of solution in Australia

Find out whether your apartment building is suitable for Allume’s solution

 

Solar for strata approach #4: Single system with embedded network

This approach is the most complex, difficult and potentially costly of all the options listed here. An embedded network is basically a private ‘microgrid‘ inside an apartment block. Every unit is metered separately behind a ‘master’ meter that connects the block to the grid. Individual units in an embedded network are generally promised cheaper rates for their electricity, regardless of whether there is solar or not.

In instances where solar is installed on an embedded network, the energy produced can theoretically be ‘split up’ equitably among units and supplied at an even lower rate than under a PPA (or possibly at no cost). Even feed-in credits could be split up among different units. Legally, residents of individual units would still have their choice of electricity retailer (if they live somewhere with a competitive market).

While the embedded network solution is the most ‘thorough’ of those listed here, it is also the most fraught with complications and the most difficult to implement – especially for existing blocks where an embedded network would need to be retrofitted. The first hurdle is getting agreement would be the strata committee, where a unanimous vote would be required in order to take any action. Given the potentially large costs and broad variety of approaches, there’s a considerable chance that the project would never get past initial committee discussions without some serious dedication on the part of its members.

Another important challenge that  is the requirement to get approval from the Embedded Network Manager (ENM). In the National Electricity Market (NEM), every embedded network needs to have a registered manager, due to Power of Choice regulations. The ENM is not incentivised to allow the Body Corporate to install solar as it means they are drawing less power through their gate meter and selling less power to the residents. Solar would also mean a change in the ENM’s billing system which would be difficult to negotiate.

Diagram of an embedded network. (Image via MyComm Energy.)

Main advantages:

  • Potentially the most equitable way to supply solar energy to units in a block that also helps to deliver the full potential value of solar energy (i.e. ‘free’ solar energy to be consumed during the day, plus solar feed-in credits)
  • Depending on the arrangement, a single electricity bill for each unit with appropriate charges & credits

Main disadvantages:

  • Could be prohibitively costly to implement – especially if applied as a retrofit solution instead of as part of a brand new development
  • A wide range of suppliers and specific approaches could make it difficult or time-consuming for strata committees to decide on the one that best suits their situation and needs, or to get unanimous agreement about the best approach among committee members
  • Additional red tape associated with Power of Choice regulations governing the establishment of embedded networks
  • Possibly a number of questions to ask and answer about exactly how solar energy will be divvied up among residents

Investigating solar for your strata block: Next steps

Now that you know your options, there is the question of which one is most appropriate for your situation. Solar Choice manages tenders for a wide range of solar projects – including apartment blocks – and are happy to have a no-obligation chat. Get in touch today to learn more about receiving a free Business Case Analysis & indicative Quote Comparison of leading solar installation companies in your area.

Free, impartial analysis of potential benefits of solar for your strata block

Give us a ring on the number below to discuss your project with our team:

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