Thursday, 5 December 2013

Solar panels for apartment owners - my story

Classified as: reflective journal - advocacy

Solar panels on apartment roof

(Update 7 December 2013 - just changed the title of this post to reflect what it's about better)

I had solar panels installed on the roof of my apartment block on Tuesday (3 November 2013). Several people have expressed interest in how I managed this, so here's some info.

First, I should say that I live in a small apartment block in inner northwest Melbourne. There are ten one-bedroom flats in the block and it's two storey. My flat is on the ground floor. The block overlooks a park, and the roof orientation is almost due north (yep it's a great location, I know I'm lucky!).

Owners live in five of the ten flats, and most owners come to the annual Owners' Corporation Annual General Meeting (AGM), so I know most of them. We've had our differences, but most of us have pro-environment attitudes (which are common in this part of Melbourne). I've also been here a while so I guess people trust me.

That's all background to say that my story is not going to be relevant to all apartment owners, many of whom would probably face far more barriers. However I think what can be achieved in a situation like this may also provide a precedent for people in bigger blocks and less supportive social environments.

The roof, like all external parts of the building, is common property. This means that to put anything on the roof, you have to get permission from the Owners' Corporation. I first requested permission at the AGM in 2012. We had talked about sustainability related measures at previous AGMs,  including expanding the garden area and allowing owners to grow (small) fruit trees, vegetables and herbs (agreed and done) and putting in water tanks (agreed but not done, as yet).

As my request was for an individual to make changes  to common property, it had to go to a postal ballot. The AGM agreed that a postal ballot could be held and that I should provide background information, so I contacted Moreland Energy Foundation (of which I'm a member) and Positive Charge. Positive Charge is a not-for-profit organisation, set up by Moreland Energy Foundation to help people get "smart energy solutions". It is supported by five local Councils in Melbourne, including Moreland, where I live. I also contacted eight solar energy providers, and got quotes from several of them.

I then wrote a summary of the information, including links and a pamphlet about solar provided by one of the companies. I also included my contact details so that anyone could contact me for more information. The company that manages our Owners' Corporation administration distributed this with a postal ballot, and the eventual result of the ballot was six in favour, one against, two abstaining (because they wanted more information at the next AGM) and one not voting.

On this result I could proceed, but I waited until after this years' AGM to do so. I couldn't attend that, but the issue was discussed a bit further. Some owners had expressed interest, and I was hoping some might join me in putting in panels. There is an additional cost for installation on a two storey building, so it would have made financial sense. However although people are interested, no-one else feels in a position to do it yet. The estimate I have been given is that solar will pay for itself in about four years, so I will keep my neighbours informed about how that goes.

My electricity usage is very low for most of the year. The block is a solid 1960s double brick construction with external sun blinds on north facing windows, and I have gas hot water and cooking. I also have floor-length curtains with wool-felt lining on the large windows. Most of the year my daily usage is less than 2kWH (kilowatt hours). The only time I use a lot is in winter, because I have an electric space heater, so for June-August it goes up to about 8-9kWH.

I have a 1.5kW system, and on Tuesday, which was partly overcast and partly sunny, it generated 3.3kWH in half a day. Yesterday, which was overcast and raining a lot of the time (good old Melbourne) it still generated 1.4kWH. Today is cool, partly overcast and partly sunny (uh oh now just starting to thunder, rain and hail!) and it's produced 2.7kWH by 12.30 PM. So it's looking good for me financially.

Obviously the financial incentive of solar is greater for resident owners, but it would also increase the value of rented apartments, particularly for those on the first floor which get hotter in summer, as it would greatly reduce air-conditioning costs.

The only hiccups so far are, firstly, that the installers didn't quite get the frame flush with the boundary of my flat (and the one above it) so possibly there could be a lack of space for my upstairs neighbour if they decide to get panels also. There is space for ten 1.5kW systems on the north facing roof, but it is pretty tight. The manager of the solar company believes there is still enough space, but has assured me they will move the frame free of charge should that ever become necessary, so hopefully that will be ok.

The other issue was that I was told, when getting quotes, that cabling and the inverter could be installed internally, but in the event that wasn't possible as the flats have concrete floors and the cable couldn't go through from the first floor to ground floor. So the installers put both cabling and the inverter on the back external wall of the flats. The back wall only faces a fence, but nevertheless the system is more visible than I originally expected, so I hope other owners don't object to that.

These are (I hope) not major hiccups but they do show some of the traps when dealing with communal property, so are worthwhile for other people to know about.

Two other points: people who live in apartment blocks of over two stories would most likely not have sufficient roof space to install even a 1.5kWH system per apartment, even if the Owners' Corporation allows it; and renters are dependent on owners to install roof top solar. My next post will look at community solar projects, which offer some possible solutions for renters, people in big apartment blocks, and people on low incomes who can't afford the up- front costs of solar.