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Off the grid apartments made possible by pioneering students

Off the grid apartments

Pioneering students lead the way with carbon negative off the grid apartments

Just last week, we discussed the incredibly exciting (not really) topic of Embedded Electricity Networks.  Without getting bogged down yet again in the thrilling (not really) technicalities, an EEN is when an apartment building basically becomes its own electricity retailer, ostensibly to keep prices down for everyone.

As we outlined, there are pros and cons, and one advantage is that average bills usually go down by a few percent.

But in Sydney, at least one apartment block is not only slashing power bills in half with its own EEN, but at the same time doing the planet a big favour by becoming carbon negative.

It’s an affordable student housing co-op in Newtown called the Stucco building, which since 1991 has been where 40 Sydney University students at a time call home.

By using the advantages of an EEN and combining it with solar and battery power, a group of Stucco students have proved in less than a year that ‘green’ power really can be an awful lot cheaper for those who enjoy strata living.

Today, Stucco:

  • Generates 128% of total demand from its residents
  • Generates more power in 2018 than it did in 2017, making the building not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative
  • Slashes residents’ bills by an average of 55%.

What was the project?

Last year, Stucco flicked the switched on its brand new 114 solar panels and 36 impressive Enphase battery modules.  A group of students paying about $90 per week in rent who lived at Stucco came up with the bright idea in 2015, with the lofty goal of cutting bills and ‘going green’ in a way not done before.

The City of Sydney, concerned that apartments are a stumbling block to the net-zero carbon emissions target, gave the group an $80,000 Innovation Grant in 2016.  The other $50,000 was raised by the students through contributions and pro-bono work.

A year later, Stucco proudly become the first affordable apartment building in Australia with a successful solar storage system on this scale. 

Were there any problems?

Like anything this pioneering and ambitious, there were challenges.

The Stucco project tackled issues with the building’s heritage listing, while the incredible array of battery modules meant negotiating unprecedented fire controls.  “We had to have a lot of engineering reports and build a fire-rated safety enclosure,” said former Stucco resident Louis Janse van Rensburg, a computer science student.

Obtaining the license to become an EEN is also no mean feat.

But for a year now, students currently living at Stucco have been buying power from the building’s own Embedded Electricity Network (called Stucco Co-Operative), which produces all of the energy used by the residents and more.

What about those bills?

For those who know what the numbers mean, Stucco produces 30kW of solar power, with 40kWh of available storage.  It means that before the huge battery array was switched on, students were paying $540 on average for their power from one of the major retailers.

Today, that bill is down to just $240 for the year.

“The results show solar and storage solutions can help Australia’s apartment sector access clean, renewable energy, and also cut high costs of living for Sydney tenants,” said Bjorn Sturmberg, one of the students who started the project.

“For too long, Australia’s solar revolution has been confined to owner-occupier properties, and renters have been excluded from these opportunities, leaving them locked into dirty energy and exposed to skyrocketing electricity prices,” he added.

What’s next?

Unfortunately, Stucco is still somewhat a lone success story for low-cost green energy in the fast growing Australian apartment sector.  Solar panels now outnumber people in our country, but regulatory barriers, red tape and reluctant strata committees stand in the way.

But the innovative students are hopeful.

“It’s been very difficult but we’ve established a process and a way to do this, so hopefully it’s easier for others to do this in the future,” van Rensburg said.

So with Australia having the highest residential solar adoption rate in the entire world, and high density apartment living on the up and up, one can only hope that a success story like Stucco’s is a vanguard for the immediate future.  Good on them, and good luck to the next group of brave young pioneers!

About the author

Andrew Maitland

Andrew Maitland

Andrew is a professional journalist, writer and copywriter with close to two decades of experience. He has thousands of published works and is a head contributor for Strataville.

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