Are renewables the new stone benchtops for volume builders?
Willow Aliento | 16 April 2018
Check out the product detail of any volume builder home and chances are you’ll find a master bedroom ensuite, walk-in wardrobe and kitchen stone benchtop as standard offerings. Increasingly, you might also find solar panels and a Tesla battery as part of the package, with a growing number of deals between providers such as Bradford Energy and volume builders in most states.
So is this the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for that will propel us towards the net-zero built environment, or are there still energy efficiency and compliance elephants in the open-plan lounge room?
The Fifth Estate asked some industry experts whether the solar and storage trend is the new stone benchtop, and what the implications of the trend are in terms of the residential sector’s deeper issues.
Becoming the new normal
Mary Hendriks, industry executive at the Australian Energy Storage Alliance (AESA), told The Fifth Estate that in some parts of
the residential building sector, solar PV coupled with storage has become “the new normal”.
Recent figures from Sunwiz show that there are now more than 1.7 million solar PV rooftop installations in Australia – up to 30 per cent of rooftops in some states. And shows that Australia was the largest residential storage market in the world in 2017 with 246 megawatts of deployments, tripling that of 2016.
The big opportunity of these trends is for the emergence of virtual power plants (VPPs) and smart energy management approaches, she says.
In the past year, there has been growing interest in the residential sector for storage in combination with VPPs, demand management or innovations in managing distributed energy resources.
Hendriks cites a number of examples of VPPs already coming into play, including three in South Australia already in operation or in the early implementation or planning stages. The largest on the board to date is the proposal by the former SA government to put solar PV and storage as a trial on 1100 Housing Trust properties, funded through the sale of electricity.
While there is no statement as yet, Hendriks says it is the AESA’s understanding the new SA government will remain committed to the first tranche of installations under this plan.
There is also a project underway in the ACT to create a VPP by aggregating residential installs completed under the ACT government’s battery purchase program.
While there is significant potential in the retrofit space, Hendriks says that new housing is seeing real traction in terms of solar PV and storage.
What’s the bigger precinct-scale picture?
In terms of the big picture, new estates with large numbers of homes less reliant on the grid could together work to reduce required electrical infrastructure and alter distribution planning for greenfield estates.
Hendriks says innovation in terms of managing distributed energy is “happening all at levels”. AESA has noted interest from both new and established energy companies on this front, but it is “early days”, she says.
The game-changer will be systems getting smarter and communicating with each other.
“As these aggregations of batteries become larger and smarter, the opportunity will be there,” Hendriks says.
“Aggregation can be across quite a broad area.”
In terms of purchasers of new homes, it will become much easier to buy solar and storage technology as the developers start to make these options part of the whole home purchase package, she says.
PV palaces and renewable Australian dreams
The Fifth Estate has been on the receiving end of a growing number of press releases promoting partnerships between solar and storage providers and volume builders. At the high end of the market, Metricon, for example, is offering Tesla Powerwall 2 home batteries as a standard inclusion with the Signature by Metricon Residences range.
“Metricon is on the pulse with residential innovation that enhances the client’s lifestyle and, with the installation of revolutionary technology in each home including the Tesla Powerwall 2 home battery, every customer can enjoy the lifestyle luxuries of sustainable and cost-saving energy,” Metricon design director Adrian Popple says.
With a standard price point of between $550,000 to $1 million, and other brand partners including Villeroy & Boch, Franke, Miele, Smeg, Siemens and Ceasarstone, these are not homes for the average first homebuyer.
Metricon NSW State Sales Manager Peter Ayres says the Tesla Powerwall is also a standard inclusion in the company’s Designer by Metricon range and available as an upgrade to all its customers. These include Queensland customers.
The battery is also offered as part of a 5.4kW Bradford Solar ChargePack, which Bradford Energy claims will save households up to $30,000 on energy over a decade, with savings in the first year for a family of four estimated to be around $2100.
Ayers says the cost of adding the Tesla Powerpack to one of the Designer by Metricon homes is $4999.
He says the option allows the company to offer its homebuyers “the power and control of their energy costs, providing ongoing savings”.
“The current market is after energy efficient ways to reduce ongoing bills. Right now, a new home owner is at their limits as land prices continue to rise.
“To offer a Tesla Powerwall in a Metricon home ensures that Australian families can live comfortably knowing that they will be saving every single dollar on rising electricity bills.”
Bradford Energy has also inked a number of other partnership deals with builders, including one with WA project home builder Plunkett Homes. The package comprises $30,000 worth of technology including Bradford solar panels, a Tesla Powerwall 2, inverter, smart app monitoring and reverse cycle airconditioning, for an added build cost to the consumer of $3000.
Bradford Energy business manager Ashleigh O’Brien says WA homebuyers will now be able to take advantage of a trend that is taking off in eastern states.
“Across Australia, we are seeing soaring demand for household battery storage solutions as technology improves and the price of electricity continues to rise. These factors combined with electricity savings are driving incredible increases [in] demand,” he says.
“In fact, the Climate Council recently estimated that there were 20,000 new installations across Australia in 2017, around three times the number of new installations the year before.”
The growing number of home-builder partnerships the company has announced are “part of our vision to empower households with electricity savings and power control”.
“I have a vision that every house built in a few years’ time will have solar and a battery installed. It just makes so much sense,” O’Brien says.
“We’ve been working with most of the major builders across Australia and a lot of them are starting to include storage as standard, while others offer it as an upgrade and it’s just gaining more momentum.”
Donna Luckman, chief executive of the Alternative Technology Association, told The Fifth Estate that solar and storage was “absolutely” the new trend.
There is so much consumer interest because it’s “the way of the future”.
The organisation has been getting a large number of calls from people wanting to know how batteries can work for both new and existing dwellings.
The big motivating factor is reducing power bills.
“People just don’t want to pay bills to power companies anymore,” Luckman says.
Thermal efficiency is also a growing area of interest, she says.
The ultimate goal in terms of low running costs is having a home that is energy-efficient, all-electric and has solar PV installed.
Luckman says batteries are expected to reach a price point by 2020 that will be highly affordable. Homeowners should be planning for this, and ensuring storage can be installed when that occurs, she says.
The momentum on storage and solar is very much consumer-driven.
“The smarter volume builders are leading the way and taking the initiative – and good on them for that,” Luckman says.
But is it just a bandaid?
Cofounder and director of Presync Ben Waters told The Fifth Estate that making solar PV and storage part of the standard package is something the company is working on with a few developer clients.
As to whether it’s the new stone benchtop, Waters says “it should be”.
If someone is thinking about a home purchase and looking at aesthetic inclusions such as stone benchtops versus what would be a really good investment, solar and storage is the obvious choice.
He questions, however, if the project home and developer sales staff are equipped to make the case to prospective homebuyers.
There is probably an information gap, he says, as well as a finance gap, as most decisions are still being made in terms of the capital cost of purchasing a home.
“It is not a simple sell,” he says.
“The way we’ve traditionally bought houses in this country is focused on the capital cost and about finding the cheapest, when it should be about the lifecycle cost.”
As a result, many buyers of new homes are “locked into paying high bills”.
Start with energy efficiency
And before getting excited about solar and storage, it is better to buy a home that is energy efficient in the first place and has the right elements in place such as double-glazing, building sealing and insulation, then size the solar and PV to that scale of energy use.
Instead of an energy-guzzling house that needs a lot of solar and storage, an efficient home means only a small system is needed.
Live data that enables consumers to see what is using energy, and when, is another part of the improved performance equation he believes is important.
Studies have shown that when people know when energy is being used, it has an energy efficiency benefit, he says.
“Having that data empowers customers to engage with their energy use.”
Waters says that for builders, offering the technology is a “simple add-on”, for which they may also gain a commission. It does not require them to “change business as usual” in terms of how homes perform.
“We need to change the system because it is not working,” Waters says.
“The real story is, could we build a better quality home?”
Not only are our current performance standards in terms of what is required for compliance poor, Waters says the level of non-compliance with those poor standards is high.
There are suggestions that about 90 per cent of new homes could be non-compliant, he says.
This situation should be addressed, instead of adding the “band aid of solar and storage”.
“How about we design houses so you don’t need a large solar system and large air conditioning anyway,” he says.
The current offers of solar and batteries may be “a bit of a marketing gimmick”.
“It is better than not having [solar and storage], but don’t use it to mask the bigger problems with homes.”
He says that poor design and poor compliance are the major drivers of demand for airconditioning, and that it is airconditioning that is the root cause of recent expenditures to improve grid stability and capacity.
The other benefit of better quality homes that need less airconditioning is comfort, health and wellbeing increases – and that’s good for everyone.