from Green Villages:

Stucco, a non-profit organisation that provides affordable housing for students, sidestepped the challenge of installing solar panels in individual units in apartment blocks. They established their own solar and storage system and capitalised on the co-op’s unique management structure to ensure equal, affordable access to energy for their residents.

Currently, around three quarters of inner Sydney residents live in apartments. While high-rise living is often seen as more energy efficient than a freestanding home, on a building level, utility consumption per person in apartments is actually higher. Up to 60% of an apartment building’s total energy is taken up by common areas like underground carparks.

However, when it comes to choosing clean energy like solar, apartment residents are in a bind, especially if they are renting. Tenants are unable to install panels on common property and if solar does exist in the building, it is used to power shared spaces. Owners are reluctant too, as this is a job that requires a substantial investment and approval from the body corporate. Rejigging an entire building is logistically difficult (although our Smart Green Apartments program can provide support).

So, how has a 40-person student cooperative taken on this challenge to create Australia’s first community-controlled apartment solar system?

Armed with an $80,000 environmental performance innovation grant from the City of Sydney, Stucco team Bjorn Sturmberg, Louis Janse van Rensburg and Sarah King were prompted to research new developments in the renewables sector.

They realised that Stucco’s unique management structure could help overcome the common barriers to providing low-cost electricity in an apartment block. Stucco developed a power purchasing agreement that defines how the residents will access and buy electricity.

“As young people, wider government inaction on climate change really concerns us. Stucco had wanted to switch to solar energy for a long time, however found it to be financially unfeasible,” says Louis.

So, the team of volunteers dedicated tireless hours to making sustainable electricity accessible to all. The result is a unified solar panel and battery system of 114 panels and 36 batteries that produces 30 kWh and has a storage capacity of 42.3 kW. It looks to provide around 80% of the building’s energy, although on some days, the complex will be fully powered by sunlight.

Through their hard work, the Stucco team overcame various issues along the way. These included obtaining a retail exemption from the Australian energy regulator, making careful decisions about which companies to use and establishing smart metering to ensure billing is simple.

“Stucco is for low-income university students who are largely from disadvantaged backgrounds. The guarantee of charging residents the lowest cost of electricity makes a big difference for students with strained budgets,” says King.

With the new system, electricity costs a maximum of 10c during off-peak and 40c during in peak hours per resident – which works out to be a saving of $35 every month, or 20%.

She continues: “Previously, we were vulnerable to sharp changes in the mainstream electricity market. Becoming an embedded network with smart metering gives a sense of autonomy to the production and consumption of electricity that has not previously been possible. One day, we hope that apartment buildings everywhere can operate like our project, leaving renters better off.”

The Stucco team hopes to see this model help the transition away from fossil fuels in social housing, private apartments and office buildings. You can contribute to Stucco’s crowdfunding campaign to ensure the long-term viability of their project, or check out our environmental grants if you need help getting your idea off the ground.

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