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Nicholson Gardens retrofit

Built in the late 1990s, the low-rise buildings that make up the 92-apartment Nicholson Gardens complex sit around a large, treed garden with a communal pool. About five years ago, apartment owner Miriam Robinson kickstarted Nicholson Gardens’ solar project. “I used to watch the sun shining on the roofs and think, someone should really do something with that,” she says. "One day I decided that 'someone' would have to be me."

Miriam attended the next Annual General Meeting to discuss putting up some solar panels. She was invited to join the Owners’ Corporation Committee and investigate the project further during the year. Yarra Energy Foundation put her in touch with Rowan Doyle, a solar consultant handling out-of-the-ordinary jobs. “Once we had Rowan on board, we were fine. It's very important to have a good technical advisor who knows the industry,” Miriam says. There was plenty of space for solar panels on the rooftops of the 3-storey complex, but on Rowan’s advice they elected to break the project into stages and start small, to ensure a short payback time and make it easier to get the committee’s support.

“We swapped all our common area lights for LED, installed motion sensors in the garage, and upgraded our pool pump,” Miriam says, “and installed 16 solar panels – that’s 4kW – enough to cover our daytime energy use in common areas. The total cost was around $25,000, but it reduced our energy bill by $7,000 per year, meaning a payback time of just over three years.”

The second part of the plan is to install enough solar to provide for the average daytime energy use of the whole site (about 42kW), along with an ‘embedded energy network’ (or micro-grid).  It was almost ready to go ahead earlier this year, but the retailer they were working with went into administration. "That was a bit of a setback," says Miriam, "but these things happen." At present they are trying to find another company that might be able to take over the project. "The final step would be to put in more panels and battery storage," Miriam says. "Battery storage is still pretty expensive, but prices are coming down. Maybe one day."

Miriam and the committee are delighted with the results of their efforts so far. She encourages others to get stuck into sustainability projects in their buildings: “You need someone to lead the project who is a bit goal orientated, who really wants to make it happen. Also, it has to make sense financially. And finding the right technical people to help is crucial – start with your local council. They are often able to connect you with a local expert.”

Miriam's advice

My best advice is to have patience: be prepared for setbacks, be prepared for people not agreeing with you, be prepared for it to take a couple of years.

Miriam Robinson, apartment owner and Owners’ Committee chair