The citizens’ utility

Artists impression of buildings with rooftop solar installations at the proposed White Gum Valley development
Artists impression of buildings with rooftop solar installations at the proposed White Gum Valley development

Curtin University is working with developers and Western Power to develop Australia’s first solar storage zero-carbon neighbourhood in the Western Australian suburb of White Gum Valley.

A precinct of solar homes recently launched in White Gum Valley, Perth, will generate and sell its own electricity through a new type of ‘citizens utility’.

Eighty new homes at the site of the old Kim Beazley Primary School will feature solar panels, with the other half trailing solar batteries, cutting energy and water bills by about $1200 a year for tenants.

Solar PV systems have not been widely used on strata developments, because there is no business case for the building owner to invest in renewable infrastructure. The burden of the cost falls upon the owners, while the tenants get the benefit of reduced power bills.

But Curtin University, Landcorp and the CSIRO have partnered to develop a system that will benefit both investors and tenants.

Curtin University sustainability specialist Jemma Green said under the system, residents would pay their energy bills to the strata body rather than the energy retailer.

“This is an Australian-first and I’m only aware of one other project in Italy, which has actually done this,” she said.

“The solar panels and the batteries sit on the strata and are owner-managed by the strata manager. It provides [investors] with an additional revenue stream, so if an investor buys an apartment and rents it out, the tenant will pay their electricity bill to the strata, which will offset the strata costs and provide a justification for the capital investment.

“So the strata companies are acting as a utility, buying solar, battery infrastructure on behalf of the owners of the dwellings and then selling them on to tenants and owner occupiers,” Jemma said.

The strata can charge an amount equal to the tariff residents would otherwise be paying. But they can also sell it at a discount to attract tenants to the market place.

“It means the roof space can be commoditised and provide an extra revenue stream to the owners,” Jemma added.

Along with being low-energy homes, the one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, townhouses, and freestanding homes will also use about half the amount of water than typical Perth dwellings. They will be low-energy homes and use about 50 per cent less water than typical Perth dwellings.

Two electric cars will also be available, to be rented to people in the precinct and the wider community to generate more income for the strata and owners.

Jemma estimated the system would reduce reliance on the grid by 70-80 per cent, but the grid would still be needed mainly in winter months when there was less sunshine.

“Similarly, the solar panels will try and provide the house with electricity,” she said.

“If there’s no demand there, they’ll fill up the battery, and if the battery’s full and there’s no demand from the house, they’ll try and sell it to the precinct. If there’s no buyers there they’ll sell it to the grid.

“It allows for the benefits to flow back to the owner, who will be buying the solar in the batteries in the first place.

“We’re going to see a new breed of utilities emerging as a result of this innovation. So, it’s very exciting.”


Governing solar PV in strata residential developments

Few multi-unit solar-storage developments with shared governance currently exist. What’s more, there is no clear Australian model for how to run them, which is why project partners have joined with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to develop governance models to allow shared solar PV, battery and monitoring systems to be used in medium-density apartments.

The governance models will be tested at 50 units of the White Gum Valley development.

“The future energy market will consist of increasing levels of distributed energy. While rooftop solar has become widely accepted by the residential housing market, issues with shared ownership, lack of available frameworks and pricing incentives have prevented renewable energy to be taken up in apartments and other strata developments,” ARENA said in a statement.

The governance models developed will examine the shared benefits, risks and costs between developers, owners, tenants, strata bodies and utilities. The models will also include the energy system design, billing, legal addendums for dwelling purchasers and dwelling leases.

The financial aspects of the governance models will be studied, tested and demonstrated in three different strata lot developments. The models developed are expected to be adaptable and scalable to suit different development types.

“The project will provide scalable and generalisable models for shared ownership of solar and storage in medium density developments,” ARENA said.

“The White Gum Valley site will serve as a demonstration of the effectiveness of the governance model in enabling greater solar PV and storage to be adopted across apartment housing in Western Australia and across other parts of Australia.”


Winning the public over on infill development

The development is an example of what the Western Australian Government wants to promote for infill housing.

Minister for Lands Terry Redman said he thought the government was starting to win the somewhat emotional debate about infill developments.

“What has been designed here is something that should be affordable to the Gen Y marketplace, but of course meets the sustainability standards and the infill densities we want to see in broader developments in Perth,” he said.

“We are certainly dealing with a history of how we think development should happen – trying to shift that is difficult.

“The culture is still for the Greenfield developments in the typical housing-type plots. What we need to have is demonstration sites so people can actually see what it looks like to be a part of these.

“It is unacceptable in Western Australia that we can progress towards 3.5 million people by 2050 and not have a level of high-density infill development.

“We do need to do this right, we need to win the public over and this is one way of doing it.”

Landcorp’s chief executive Frank Marra agreed. He believes the scheme would become the future norm, as other developers saw the commercial benefits.

“As Perth grows there is going to be a greater share of housing that needs to be provided through infill development,” he said.

Two of the White Gum Valley sites for apartment development are scheduled for release in August.