Installing Solar in Strata

Rooftop solar panels are becoming increasingly popular and can help lower electricity costs and act in part as an insurance policy against ever increasing electricity rates.

It is possible to install solar panels in strata titled buildings, however, for many strata properties there are numerous barriers and hoops to jump through for lot owners to install solar panels on either their own property or common property.

This article discusses the benefits of solar and the barriers to installation as well as discussing multiple options for bodies corporate to consider.

Some of the Benefits of Solar

  • Savings on energy;
  • Short Payback Period;
  • Increasing property values;
  • Reducing carbon emissions;
  • Consistent base load for maximum financial benefit;
  • Govt. incentives.

Barriers to Installing Solar in Strata

While rooftop solar has been increasingly popular in Australia, it is estimated that only around 0.5% of strata schemes nationwide have had solar installed.

This is due to various factors including:

  • Perceived complexity if installing solar acting as a disincentive;
  • Strata scheme decision-making processes;
  • The difficulty in determining whether there is a solid financial case for investment in solar;
  • Finding ways to ‘split up’ the solar energy equitably, ensuring that there’s a way to track how much solar energy is being produced, and which units are using how much of it;
  • Strata blocks often have flat and concrete roofs, which can mean additional costs when it comes to ballasting and tilting the panels;
  • Tall buildings may have additional costs related to extra-long cable runs and additional costs for transporting the panels and other equipment to the roof;
  • A strata complex is often a mix of renters and owner-occupiers where the incentives for getting solar may differ depending on which you happen to be.

Importance of Communication

One of the primary issues with strata schemes installing solar is doing a feasibility study and making sense of the funding alternatives.

This requires quite a lot of work in terms of analysis, planning the implementation and the task of communicating the issues to owners to enable them to make an informed vote on the choices on offer.

Making the Financial Case for Solar

When considering whether it makes financial sense to install solar in your strata scheme, the following should be considered:

  • Is energy use sufficient to justify installing solar PV? Energy use data can be requested from the existing energy supplier to help work this out;
  • Does it make sense to feed back into the grid using solar feed-in tariffs? It may make better economic sense to restrict the size of the solar PV to a size which can be used by the strata. It may also be worth considering whether battery storage would be worthwhile;
  • How will the solar energy be distributed fairly? Energy consumption may need to be tracked to individual units. Similarly, consideration of how any returns on solar feed-in tariffs are distributed will need to be considered.

 

Permissions to Install Solar Panels

Location of Panels

Firstly, you will need to work out where the solar panels are will be placed. In particular, the rooftop could be common property, depending on the format plan the Body Corporate’s responsibility, or be part of someone’s lot.

If the installation location is common property, then it may also be subject to an exclusive use by-law, a lease or licence.

The way to find this out is to obtain a copy of the Community Management Statement for your scheme and a copy of the survey plans. The survey plans describe the lots in the building and the common property.

 

Standard Format Plan

If your lot is built as a standard format plan so your roof is within your lot (i.e. you are solely responsible for its maintenance), you may be able to install the solar panels without body corporate approval, however it would be prudent to inspect the By-laws for the scheme to ensure that Body Corporate approval is not required.

Be mindful that the installation cannot encroach on the roof space of your neighbours though (including any fixtures).

 

Individual Lots

If the installation location is a part of someone’s lot, then only that lot owner can install solar panels on that area of rooftop (though they can agree to make the area available to others if they wish)

 

Common Property

If the installation location is common property then first you check if it subject to an easement; grab a title search of the common property to see if there are any easements.

If there is no easement, the next thing to check is whether the area is covered by an exclusive use by-law. If so, then the by-law will generally decide the issue; that is, who has the benefit of the exclusive use and what the area can be used for.

 

Unreasonable Refusal

In 2009, amendments to the Building Act 1975 (Qld) were legislated to support “sustainable housing”.

The amendments targeted body corporate by-laws, residential development building covenants and similar rules that sought to restrict owners from using a range of sustainable building features.

The amendments provided that covenants or by-laws that prohibit or restrict the installation of solar panels on the roof or other external surface of a prescribed building merely for the purpose of preserving the external appearance were of no force and effect.

Additionally, where consent was required to install solar panels, the consent could not be withheld merely to enhance or preserve the external appearance of a building.

See this case study for more information.

 

Here Are Some Different Options for Managing Solar in Strata

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.

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)

Disadvantages:

  • No savings on electricity bills for individual occupants

 

Each Unit With 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.

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

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

 

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.

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.

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

 

Solar for Your Scheme: Next Steps

Do your research and find a solar solution that is the most appropriate for your situation and scheme.

The Committee can engage an independent third party to act as a consultant for the Body Corporate to guide and advise the Committee as to what systems could be adopted for a specific scheme that would likely improve outcomes for all Lot Owners.

For more information about solar in Queensland see https://www.qld.gov.au/housing/buying-owning-home/energy-water-home/solar.

You can also get in touch with a Stratacare body corporate manager for obligation free advice.

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