In this edition of Talking Architecture and Design, we speak with Paolo Bevilacqua, general manager, Sustainability and Real Utilities at Frasers Property Australia, on the increased focus on sustainability among developers, residential solar installations, community microgrids and Fraser’s green power push.

You've been involved in sustainability for quite some time. Do we need more developers in the built environment that are quite literally made for sustainability in your opinion?

Do we need more developers focussed on sustainability? One hundred percent, we do. It's being led in Australia in particular sectors of the built environment; the commercial office sector probably led the way 10-15 years ago, driven by the government to some extent requiring their office to basically be more sustainable and also by some of the big corporates.

It was customer driven and the industry responded by starting the transition into the retail and industrial sectors, and now slowly into residential.

I think we need to do a lot more in that space, but developers are listening to the customers, are more understanding of the customers’ problems and trying to develop solutions to respond to those problems such as energy affordability and better quality homes that are better for their health and wellbeing. Those kinds of things are important to customers, so developers are responding by trying to find a solution.

What will it take for the majority of home builders to design and build homes that utilise renewable energy? Are we waiting for a price tipping point or are we waiting for society to say, hey, this is what we want?

If you look at the facts, within Australia we just passed two million homes with solar. Phenomenal –around one in four households has solar panels on their roof and if you actually look in some states – Queensland and South Australia – it’s closer to one in three.

So when we talk about renewable energy, we've reached a tipping point and I think those numbers will continue to grow. You are going to have some constraints around apartments and how they incorporate solar because people have limited options there.

But what's driven that tipping point – price, government subsidies and programs – a lot of this is going around and still being promoted. South Australia, for instance, recently announced a battery scheme where they give out a $5000 subsidy for homes to install batteries.

Frasers Property’s mixed use development incorporates residential, retail and community spaces powered by large scale solar photovoltaic systems, which are placed on the Ed.Square shopping centre roof and over every home.

Frasers will buy electricity on behalf of the tenants in the shopping centre. Is this the future of major developers? Is Frasers changing from a developer to a power retailer?

I think it's a really interesting space with property and energy starting to come together. Traditionally, the property developer would need to lay out the electrical and gas infrastructure in a project, put meters in homes and switchboards and all that stuff that's part of the cost of developing, except at the end of that, traditionally the developer would hand it over to an energy authority of some description and then they would go on and make all the money from selling the energy.

What’s changed more recently thanks to innovation and people working in adjacent markets, be it in property or other sectors, is that companies like us are looking at how we can provide a better solution to customers, especially around price and sustainability and environmental impact.

So what it means is we have solar everywhere – on the shopping centre, on the apartment buildings, on all the town homes and terraces that we're building out there in Ed.Square, approximately three megawatts of solar, which is a lot of solar.

Let’s look at it from the point of view of the residents. How much would an average household at Ed.Square actually save over a 12-month period?

It'll save a significant amount when you break it down. Geothermal alone will save a typical three-bedroom home probably $500-600 a year in energy costs. In addition to that, the energy company will sell power at about 25-30 percent cheaper, adding $100-200 of savings.

So when you add it all up –better efficiency and cheaper power – it's a pretty significant saving for a household, especially when energy cost chipping away at household income has become a real issue.

In the absence of any leadership from government at the moment, has the ball now landed in the industry's court?

Definitely at a federal level where we're in a policy vacuum. Some state governments are doing their part; I mentioned South Australia earlier, then there's Victoria that's just announced a scheme where they will provide rebates and subsidies at the household level.

So in some sectors the industry will definitely lead; in other sectors, it will be a combination of State governments providing support and the industry forming really good solutions.

We have signed a global contract to do something; I think at some point we're going to have to respond. We need to achieve some targets, and industries have a role to play as well as the government, so we need to be well positioned now to respond.

You mentioned Real Utilities as a standalone licensed Australian energy retailer. What has been the response from the market?

The response has been positive. We launched Real Utilities on a Frasers Property site in Botany called Tailor’s Walk about twelve months ago. With 100 percent of the residents having signed up for Real Utilities, there are about 330-odd customers on that site getting 28 percent cheaper electricity than the standard offer. The average bill for an apartment is about $1200 a year, so they will be saving maybe a couple of hundred dollars a year.

Unlike energy providers that offer multiple plans, Real Utilities offers one plan. We tell the customers – it’s really simple, it's going to be cheaper, you don't have to sign up to twelve months, and it's just the best discount you can get. We try to simplify the energy buying process, make it cheaper and greener. The residents are happy, and the response has been good.

We have a similar system at Discovery Point, another apartment development from Frasers Property in Wolli Creek.

We are also doing a really exciting mixed use project in Melbourne called Burwood Brickworks, which will feature the world's most sustainable shopping centre.

We are targeting a Living Building Challenge certification for the shopping centre, which requires some very ambitious targets to be achieved including producing more energy than it uses renewably, treating all the water on the site and making that available for use in the building, and also generating very little waste in operations and also in the construction.

So a lot of really ambitious targets need to be achieved to get to that outcome but it's been designed to achieve that and now it’s a matter of delivering it and operating it to that level. We are also doing a number of apartments on that site, which have similar initiatives and Real Utilities will provide the energy in those apartments.

As Frasers develops small properties, Real Utilities would pick up more customers. The real test will be in providing a good service, a cheaper product, and we think that customers will care more about the greener aspects of energy.

Solar panels are an indication of that but not everyone can have solar panels; if you are in an apartment it is more difficult, so we'll look after that for you offsite. We will find other ways for you to get access to solar so that the energy you are buying is 100 percent renewable.

What would be your ultimate sustainability challenge that you'll like to tackle and perhaps eventually overcome in the context of your role here at Frasers?

I'm really passionate about energy; I'd love to see zero carbon development. I think it’s definitely possible – some developments will have greater challenges than others, greater density makes it more difficult to get solar and other technologies in to get to a zero carbon outcome.

I hope to see communities, particularly mixed use ones that will operate as a microgrid; they will provide their own grid and within that community you have energy generation from solar panels and maybe some other technology, you’ll have really superefficient homes with geothermal and smart technology, or even just airtight homes.

We're doing a passive house in Victoria, the Point Cook project, which is about providing a really airtight quality home, well insulated, and requiring very little energy input for heating and cooling.

The objective is to bring all of this together in one development where you have high performing homes, high efficiency equipment and technologies, renewable energy being generated with a grid allowing those homes to share energy amongst each other.

Having a provider like Real Utilities to run it and make sure it’s working where the homeowner doesn’t need to worry about expensive energy equipment but gets to enjoy the benefits, I think that's a model I’d love to see happen.

Bringing it all together and creating a community that is zero carbon, provides savings to customers in their energy costs and is just a better place to be, I think that's where we would love to get to.

For the full podcast interview with Paolo Bevilacqua, general manager, Sustainability and Real Utilities at Frasers Property Australia, go here.