A grant from the City of Sydney helped tenants of a student housing co-operative in Newtown set up a solar power system, overcoming several challenges and barriers in their quest to live a sustainable life.

In the process, the co-op, Stucco also achieved the honour of being Australia’s first community-controlled solar power project for apartments.

The solar installation was the result of the combined efforts of Bjorn Sturmberg, Louis Janse van Rensburg and Sarah King, all students and tenants at Stucco. While Bjorn was studying physics and completing his PhD in solar energy, Louis was studying psychology, and Sarah was doing her degree in social work.

Consisting of 8 self-contained units that accommodated 40 people, Stucco was the perfect environment for this kind of project because all the tenants believed in sustainability and were interested in reducing their environmental impact in any way. There are no landlords or real estate agents at the co-op, with everyone contributing to the process of decision-making.

Looking to set up a solar installation at their apartments, which seemed unaffordable, complicated and out of reach to them, the trio came to know about the City of Sydney grants. After extensive research and spending weeks writing up the application, they applied for the grant. There were several barriers including issues with federal energy regulations since they were a multi-unit residence and would be the first apartment block that would be selling power to itself.

Since technically their building would become an embedded network or a mini grid, it made regulators much more hesitant to give them approval. There were also fire issues around the batteries, which meant they had to build a fire safe area for them. Their building’s heritage status also created more challenges for them.

However, receiving the City of Sydney grant meant they had the City’s backing for the project. After overcoming several regulatory and legal barriers, they were able to get everything up and running – a process that took them about a year. They also had the help of Stucco alumni, Gail Christopher from Gilbert & Tobin who was now a lawyer and offered them pro-bono advice.

By the end of 2016, 114 solar panels and 36 batteries had been installed in the building. Thanks to the solar installation, each resident, on average, saves 55 per cent of their usual electricity bills, and 80 per cent of Stucco is now self-sufficient.

For Sturmberg, the project, despite the many challenges, was a learning curve and an incredible achievement. It also provided a launching pad into his next venture – a social enterprise called SunTenants to help get solar into rental properties. He also received a fellowship from the Myer Foundation to support him.

Sturmberg believes their experience with the Stucco installation has set the groundwork for other multi-unit buildings to continue working towards the big aim – to help more Australians utilise renewable energy.