Tenacious university students at Stucco, a low-income student housing cooperative in central Sydney, are setting a precedent for solar energy across Australia and worldwide. Thanks to these driven young people, their multi-unit residence is now running almost entirely on solar power, and boasts the most Enphase storage batteries ever installed in one place.
In Australia, we have almost boundless access to a massive free energy resource: the sun. We live in the sunniest country on Earth, and 1.6 million households are already making the most of this incredible, cheap power source by using rooftop solar panels and, increasingly, battery storage systems in their homes. However, millions of Australian tenants are getting left behind in the upgrade to clean, renewable energy. Unnecessary red-tape and outdated regulations mean there are still very few systems installed on apartment buildings and residential complexes.
These students recognised that this wasn’t good enough, so they started a groundbreaking project to install a cutting-edge solar PV and battery system that would provide 80% of the power needs of their 8-unit housing complex. Solar cell technology is cost effective, efficient, and readily available, and battery storage capacity is quickly catching up. All they had to do was install it on a larger scale… or so they thought.
"Our work will benefit a thousand-odd low income students by providing them with cheaper electricity," Bjorn Sturmberg, project leader.
What seemed like a simple enough project at first became a long, arduous process of hoop jumping and negotiations. As we all know, planning permission guidelines, complaints from neighbours, and local government regulations can stand in the way of the most basic new garden fence, let alone innovative pilot projects like the installation of solar and storage at Stucco.
In this case, the students also had to combat outdated energy legislation that prevents residents from using power without purchasing it from official energy providers via the building management. However, as a housing cooperative, the students collectively manage their residence, presenting a unique opportunity in which the interests of the tenants and the owners are aligned.
Eventually, with the assistance of a grant from the City of Sydney, the project was up and running.
Prior to planning the solar panels and battery system, smart meters were installed in each unit to assess how much energy was needed to run the residence. In the end, 114 solar PV panels and 36 storage batteries were installed, which will produce 30kW of energy -- 80% of Stucco’s power needs.
The smart meters will continue to monitor each unit’s power consumption, and feed that information back to the body corporate, allowing owners to bill tenants according to their consumption. This innovative retailing solution provides cheaper, cleaner power for the tenant, and a steady stream of income to the owners to subsidise the installation and maintenance costs of the solar and storage system.
“Our work will benefit a thousand-odd low income students by providing them with cheaper electricity,” said Bjorn Sturmberg, the leader of the project, at the launch event for Stucco Solar+Storage. “And then there's the 40 odd tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions being saved annually, the additional income to the co-operative, and opened pathway for many more apartment blocks to replicate similar systems.”
This pioneering student-led sustainability project proves that it’s possible to benefit both renters and landlords while upgrading to clean, renewable energy. And the best part is, the tenants at Stucco are now enjoying solar power that costs 20% less than the cheapest energy on the market.
For 146,000 people on the gross Solar Bonus Scheme in New South Wales (20c or 60c feed-in tariff), the end of the scheme is fast approaching (31 Dec 2016).
So if you’re a solar owner on the scheme, what should you do? One of the first things is to ensure you get a nett meter installed. Without this meter, come 1 January 2016 all the energy generated from your solar system will effectively be exported to the grid at a measly retail rate of around 6c/kwh. What you’ll be able to do with a nett meter is use your solar electricity rather than grid electricity which costs 4 or 5 times that amount. A typical solar bonus scheme customer risks wasting $30 per month or more without a nett meter from 1 January 2016.
Swapping from gross to nett meters will usually involve getting a smart meter.
How to get a smart meter? In the past, electricity networks (the companies that own the poles and wires) have owned and read your meter. But now, electricity retailers are able to sell and own meters and are most likely to set you up with a smart meter.
There are different kinds of smart meters with different functions but at a minimum they record energy consumption and transmit this remotely via a built-in 3G modem, avoiding manual checks of the meter. This means no more men in high vis inspecting your fuse box every few months. If nothing else, smart meters should slash the rate of dog attacks on innocent meter readers! The more sophisticated smart meters will be able to record your usage and generation more frequently - some even provide data in real times so can get more information on when you’re using and generating electricity.
Solar Citizens directly surveyed the largest 20 electricity retailers on how they are assisting customers to have a smart meter installed. We found a range of approaches and some less than genuine deals.
The Energy Australia offer is the most alarming. Australia’s third largest retailer is advertising “free” smart meters but will be charging customers $10 or $20 per month for an uncapped period. There’s also an exit fee that applies if you want to switch retailers and Energy Australia refused to provide details on the rates being offered. We reckon this deal deserves a wide steer. (UPDATE - it seems Energy Australia have provided an additional offer after Solar Citizens raised concerns. Watch this space.)
There are 6 retailers offering what seem to be genuinely free smart meters. They are claiming no extra increases in tariffs or exit fees for these smart meters. At least two of these retailers (AGL and Origin) are installing smart meters on an “opt out” basis so if you’re already a customer and don’t respond to their letter, you’ll have a smart meter installed before the end of the year.
Furthermore, the offer by community-owned retailer Enova is transparent although will lead to an extra $91 per year. Similarly, the Mojo offer includes a free meter but requires going onto a specific plan which is really only worthwhile for large energy consumers.
Retailers - especially the large ones - should be in a position to offer free meters because even though the upfront costs for them are not insignificant (around $600 each or more), they will be able to recoup these costs over time by avoiding costs to manually read the meters. (Avoided expenses from dog-attack insurance is bound to save them a bucket alone.)
The unknown factor (and hopefully one in which the IPART inquiry will look into), is what happens when you decide six months down the track to switch to a different electricity retailer but your smart meter is owned by the retailer you switched from? Will the retailer that owns your meter be able to charge your new retailer a fee that gets passed onto you? What happens to your usage data? Will the retailer that owns the meter still have rights to the data? There are also grave concerns that different kinds of meters won’t be compatible with different retailers, which could mean installing expensive new meters when customers switch to a new provider.
Another key question is what kind of access to data retailers will provide. Some retailers such as Powershop are offering full access to data gathered by smart meters whilst Energy Australia has one offer that includes access to monitoring and data and another, more expensive offer that doesn’t.
We would have liked to ask more questions of retailers about what meters they are installing, how the data will be provided to customers and so on but we found it difficult enough getting simple information from most retailers!!
For all the failings of the smart meter roll-out in Victoria, it does seem like the competitive model about to be trialled in NSW won’t apply lessons learned by the sector.
Earlier this year we ran the 2016 Great Solar Census and the results are in! We've put together a sunny infographic with the key results to provide a snapshot of who Solar Citizens are.
So, what did we learn?
1. There are more than 83,300 Solar Citizens across Australia and 89% of you live under a solar rooftop. That means Solar Citizens has grown by more than ten thousand people since roughly this time last year - that's huge! And now, even more have you have solar (up from 84% in 2015).
2. 79% of Solar Citizens are interested in battery storage. We all know batteries are the next big thing, so this isn't surprising. The market for solar and storage is only going to get bigger, especially if power companies keep trying to introduce unfair charges for solar owners.
3. You're saving money on power bills. 89% of Solar Citizens said they are satisfied that their system is saving them money on power bills, in fact, 56% of you have more than halved your annual electricity bill!
4. Australians love their solar - and want more of it. Almost 100% of survey participants think Australia should invest in big solar projects - and 92% want Australia to transition to 100% renewable power by 2030! To read more about how that's not only possible but will save us money too, check out the Homegrown Power Plan.
5. But lack of political will is getting in the way. Nearly all of you think lack of political will is the major barrier to Australia's renewable future. If you want to start changing that, get involved this federal election here.
On April 14, we presented Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's office with the signatures of 10,824 Australians who think the government needs to be stronger on renewable energy.
While we were there we took the opportunity to present his staff with a giant ‘Room for Improvement’ certificate. It turns out the PM’s own electorate of Wentworth is second last in the whole country when it comes to the number of solar rooftops!
We reckon he can do a lot better, both in Wentworth and Australia-wide. And his constituents agree. 63.5% of people in Wentworth would be more likely to vote for a party with a policy to gradually transition Australia away from coal-fired power to 100% renewable power by 2030.*
We made for a sunny bunch standing outside the PM's office in Wentworth, in I Heart Solar t-shirts and bright yellow umbrellas. We were also joined by the wonderful Ecopella who led us in several sun-themed songs. it was a great day and a chance for Solar Citizens from across Sydney to meet each other, have some fun and show our Prime Minister that it's time to shine on solar.
(This could be you!)
Australia has the chance to lead the world in clean energy, but years of policy uncertainty is holding us back. That's why this federal election Solar Citizens is set to spark a race to the top, amongst all political parties, on clean energy.
We need all hands on deck for our exciting election campaign. That's why we're looking for amazing organisers who want to work with Solar Citizens around Australia to lock in 100% clean renewable power this election.
Check out our new election positions - and please share with anyone you think would be interested!
SA senate campaign election organiser - click here.
Election organiser positions (8 week contracts) - click here.
Here's the low-down. We have a 6-month contract available working with Solar Citizens' high-impact South Australian volunteer teams as our Senate Election organiser. We also have a number of 8-week contracts available in target electorates across Australia. We are looking for people in Brisbane, Sydney, Regional New South Wales, Adelaide and Tasmania. Find more details and position descriptions here.
If you are someone, or you know someone, who wants to work to get Australia on the path to a future powered by 100% renewable energy then this could be the perfect opportunity to join our sunny team.
If you have any questions please contact our Director of Organising and Campaigns, Dan Scaysbrook by emailing email@example.com or calling 0416 481 522.
On Tuesday 29th September we held a Perth Volunteer Meeting, as a followup to the Canning by-election, to bring together any Solar Citizens in the area who were interested in starting up a Perth group. Despite some last minute apologies, the meeting went really well! Perth has made it's first steps towards getting a Solar Citizens group up and running.