Australia might lead the world for household solar energy use, but millions of people are being locked out of the benefits due to a rise in apartment living and declines in home ownership.
About 1.67 million households in Australia have solar photovoltaic (PV) panels installed.
In New South Wales, more than 350,000 households have solar PV systems.
But according to the 2016 census, more than 2.6 million people in the state can’t access solar energy to help offset electricity bills because they are renting properties or living in an apartment block.
“It comes down to they don’t own a roof to put solar on,” said Mike Roberts, a solar analyst with the Australian Photovoltaic Institute and researcher at the University of NSW.
“For people who rent, it comes down to who pays for the solar. If the landlord pays, how do they get their money back?
“The tenant won’t pay for the solar because it’s not their house and they don’t want to invest in capital that’s not theirs.
“So it’s about how we incentivise landlords and how renters and landlords can both benefit.”
Top rental suburbs
Mr Roberts analysed census data and calculated the top 15 local government areas (LGA) in NSW with residents potentially locked out of solar.
North Sydney was at the top with 74 per cent of residents living in rental properties or in an apartment.
Sydney was second with 68 per cent, followed by Waverley, Strathfield, Botany Bay, Woollahra and Randwick.
Top 15 Sydney local government areas with residents living in apartment dwellings or renting. (Supplied: Climate Media Centre)
Mr Roberts said property regulations and a complicated electricity market were preventing strata blocks from installing solar panel systems.
“The issues are around the way the energy market rules are set up; they don’t facilitate people sharing,” he said.
“In order for a strata to invest in solar and then sell the energy to their tenants, they need to set up themselves as an energy retailer which is hugely bureaucratic.
“The average strata body doesn’t want to go through that administration.”
Living as green as possible
Sydney inner-west resident Nicole Thornton has been renting for 20 years and lives in a one-bedroom unit in Dulwich Hill.
She tries to live as sustainably as possible and is a strong supporter of renewable energy.
Nicole Thornton has tried to ask for solar panels in other rental properties. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
Ms Thornton has cut down her electricity bills by going without a heater in winter, and instead has blocked the air vents and uses rolled-up towels to cut drafts.
She also turns off all the power points when she isn’t using appliances and has bought an eco-electrical board to turn off all power with one switch.
While there are only four units in the block — two occupied by tenants and two owner-occupied — it is a challenge to even raise the idea of solar with the strata committee.
Ms Thornton said it took months for all the owners to even approve the installation of a compost bin in the common area.
“The biggest barrier is the time and effort it would take to ask, and I don’t know if I’ll be here in three months’ time or a year,” she said.
“I’ve raised it at other places I’ve lived at, but because I’ve previously shared houses, the biggest concern for a lot of renters is if we ask for the solar to be installed our rent will go up.”
The cost of solar panels has dropped significantly in the past decade. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
What can apartment blocks do?
Mr Roberts said some new developments in Victoria and Western Australia were installing solar panels either attached to individual units or to support common areas.
If the solar energy is servicing only common areas, like hallways and shared gardens, the strata body would receive a direct benefit with reduced electricity costs.
Mr Roberts said large apartment high-rises often with up to 100 units were some of the easiest dwellings to incorporate solar energy compared to smaller blocks.
“Over 60 per cent of apartments in Australia are in low-rise buildings … relative to the number of apartments you’ve got a lot of roofs, so in those buildings it gets interesting putting solar on the roofs and sharing it with the apartments.”
What can renters do?
Mr Roberts said individuals could make a tiny dent in their electricity use by buying portable solar panels and using it to charge appliances such as mobile phones.
Upcoming schemes such as shared community solar farms, which are active in the United States, could also help tenants buy energy for their own use.
Blocking drafts to reduce heater use in winter can help save on electricity costs. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
A number of local start-up companies are looking into portable solar technology or methods to pay landlords for solar panels while charging tenants discounted rates for the energy they use.
“Some people want to put solar on their houses to cut carbon emissions, some want to do it to save money because electricity prices have gone up 60 to 90 per cent in the last 10 years,” Mr Roberts said.
“While that has been happening, solar power costs have come plummeting down.
“A three-kilowatt system is 90 per cent less than what it was 10 years ago to install.”
How is Stucco going?
The Australian Photovoltaic Institute is set to launch its data analysis at the Stucco social housing block in Newtown.
The student apartment complex was one of the first multi-dwelling buildings in Australia to install a shared solar and battery storage system last year.
Tenant Sarah King said each unit, some of which house up to five people, had cut their monthly electricity bills by 50 per cent.
“Our July bill was $103.31, and if we were back on the grid it would have been $224.49,” she said.
“It’s such a relief to be out of the rat race of the conventional electricity market as their prices are rising at aggressive and unprecedented rates.
“It’s a shame that other low income earners and renters are locked out of accessing the benefits of renewable energy.”