Sydney’s rooftop revolution: why we’re on the path to 100% renewables

The City of Sydney’s sustainability director, Chris Derksema, outlines our commitment to renewable energy.

One day I’d like to stand on the highest building in this city and look out at a sea of solar.

Not that I’d necessarily see anything distinctive. In the brave new world of solar, there are now power-generating roof tiles that are indistinguishable from the original product. That’s the paradox of solar. On the one hand, it’s frontier technology. On the other, it taps into a basic human need for a simple, autonomous existence. What could be simpler than powering a home with sunshine?

Then there are the cost benefits. Thanks to a huge uptake of solar over the last decade, solar is now one of the cheapest forms of power in Australia. Every time the number of panels doubles, we see a 28% reduction in the cost of the energy generated. That’s another key reason why, here at the City of Sydney, we’ve set our own renewable energy targets. We want the community to save money.

Still, there are challenges. The City of Sydney area’s solar coverage will have to be extensive if we’re going to reach our target of net zero emissions by 2050. And it’s crucial that we meet this goal because Sydney is facing an imminent population surge, an increase in development, and an escalation in the number of extreme weather events.

So we’ve started in our own backyard.

By 2021, we want every cost-effective rooftop in our portfolio to be fitted with solar panels.

We’re already well on the way to realising this target. So far, 37 of our facilities have been kitted out with solar photovoltaics. These include Paddington and Sydney town halls, Redfern Oval, Green Square’s new childcare centre and Victoria Park Pool.

Solar panels on the roof of the Victoria Park Pool complex.

Then there’s our new Alexandra Canal Depot. It’s been designed to produce all its own power, thanks to its 1600 solar panels and its large-scale lithium ion battery. This is the first in a series of 250-kilowatt Tesla Powerpacks to be installed across Sydney by Transgrid, to lower prices and prevent blackouts.

Alexandra Canal Depot.

Factoring in 3 other major arrays being fitted right now, our total solar coverage will soon amount to around 1600 kilowatts.This is about the equivalent to 400 suburban house installations. By installing cost-effective solar and storage, we help to achieve our carbon targets, and save public money through lower energy bills.

We’re also proud to contribute to the global sustainability conversation. The City of Sydney belongs to both the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. Our network of global partners provides the opportunity to share information about leading practice, to compare and critique ideas, and learn from others successes and failure. This helps to fast-track actions like setting up a $10 million budget to encourage renewable energy uptake in our local area.

One strategy involves recruiting energy experts capable of devising state-of-the-art sustainability solutions. Take the Green Square town centre precinct. Our technical team realised that some of the public buildings being constructed in Green Square would be too small to generate 100% renewable energy. Other buildings have large roofs and low energy use.

So the team planned a mini-network that will transport excess solar energy from larger buildings to smaller ones throughout the precinct. And since the entire network has only 1 connection to the grid, it’s cheaper to run.

But it’s not all about City property.

We’re also committed to working with residents and businesses to meet half the local area’s electricity demand with renewable sources by 2030. There are so many big, blank roofs in Sydney. Solar panels will help insulate them, as well as provide local energy. City research has identified that if every viable city rooftop had solar installed, we’d be able to generate 10% of the area’s demand – around 400 megawatts. At the moment, there are just 12 megawatts of solar.

There’s a reason for this. We have a high number of apartments and commercial buildings in the area. So if you live in an apartment, it’s usually the body-corporate power bill that drops because of solar, not yours. The need for collective decision making within strata apartment buildings can also impede solar uptake.

If you’re a warehouse landlord, you have to negotiate a sustainable business model with your tenant. It’s complicated. There are lots of different suppliers. Lots of different rules. People don’t know where to start.

That’s why we plan to launch a solar concierge service. If you’re an apartment owner in the City of Sydney area, you’ll be able to call a number and ask for advice. You’ll be given cost breakdowns to take to your body corporate. You’ll be guided through the quoting process. We’ll make it easier for you.

The extra $4.5 million we’ve just invested in our push for solar uptake will pay for this initiative. It will also fund other projects that are still in the development stage – like a challenge designed to encourage buildings with a high potential for solar to join our rooftop revolution. And 1 step we’ve already taken is the $750,000 contribution we’ve made towards Ausgrid’s program for promoting solar installations in Sydney.

For those who finally do make the effort, we offer a lot of other incentives.

Some incentives are financial. We’re giving $4 million in grants to projects such as the solar farm on the Young Henry’s brewery roof and the solar panels powering Stucco, a student housing cooperative in Newtown.

Solar panels on the Stucco cooperative housing complex in Newtown.

Some incentives are indirect. Thanks to a lot of hard negotiating on our part, the City is calling on energy retailers to supply renewable energy to our residents and businesses at the cheapest possible price.

We’ve also been trying to secure benefits for our solar providers from the National Energy Regulator. And although we haven’t yet obtained these benefits, I’m confident it’s only a matter of time, since it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we have to future-proof our city.

Planning regulations in California now require solar on all new buildings. I’d love to see that happen here, along with solar roofs, solar windows, wearable solar, and all the other breakthrough technologies heading our way.

Sydney is a community that wants to lead. If it continues down the path to 100% renewables, we might find ourselves living under a sea of solar sooner than you think.

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