Darebin Council leads the way with Solar Saver scheme

A progressive council in Melbourne leads the way in energy savings by making solar power available to all its residents. The council solar program is unique in its wide availability.

Darebin City Council in Melbourne’s northern suburbs started out specifically to help pensioners and other residents who received a rate rebate. But, now it’s opening its popular Solar Saver program to anyone in its local government area. Thus, it’s putting solar systems within financial reach of all residents. Gavin Mountjoy from Darebin City Council explains:

“The Solar Saver program is where council buys solar panels and then the rate payer or resident repays the total cost of the system installed over ten years and we don’t charge interest,” he says.Council solar program puts panels on roofs.

“Council enables people to repay for the system out of the savings made on their electricity savings, and pocket a bit more as well. We buy in capacity, and because we’re a local government it’s GST exempt, so we get a double saving. There’s also a ten-year warranty on the panels to make sure the system works while the customer is paying it off.”

Darebin City Council partnered with Positive Charge for Solar Saver phases 1 and 2. The solar systems were supplied and installed by Energy Matters.

A $20 million solar commitment over four years

The initial council solar program was limited to ratepayers who got a rebate. Typically, these are pensioners or low income or social housing residents. Council has now asked that the program expand. Council will allocate $10 million in 2018 to start that expansion. In preparation for this, the program is now recruiting residents and preparing quotations.

Gavin anticipates roughly 2,000 households serviced over the next year. Then, another round of 2,000 will begin. In total, council will commit $20 million over the next four years.

“We want to double the amount of solar installed in Darebin. We’ve got 18 MW of solar installed at the moment, and we plan to double that to 36 MW in the next four years.” Under the Solar Saver program, solar system sizes are limited, from 1 kW to just under 5 kW.

Expanding the council solar program for small business

There are plans to expand the council solar program to small businesses in two ways:

  • a special charge program, where council recoups the cost of the system through a business’s rates;
  • and through environmental upgrade agreements (EUA).

“We’re thinking EUA systems could go from 20 to 30 kW, but we would put a limit of 10 kW on the special charge program,” Gavin says. “The difference is that with the special charge scheme, council pays for it up front and collects the money through the business’s rates. With the EUA, the system is you can have a third party that loans the money and council collects the repayments through the rates.”

At the moment, batteries are not part of the Solar Saver program. The focus is on getting solar panels onto people’s roofs.

Even without batteries, Gavin describes the savings as phenomenal. “With the Victorian feed in tariff of 11.3 cents, the bigger the system the better. It really depends on how many panels you can fit on your roof. In the past, when the tariff was 6 cents and we were dealing with low volume electricity users like pensioners, 1.5 to 2 kW worked fine. Now, with the 11.3 cent tariff, a 3-5 kW solar system is where we should be heading.”

What about solar power for renters?

Renters face a challenge to access solar power systems, and it’s an area that Darebin is looking into. Because they are not the owners, renters must negotiate with the landlord  about who will pay for the system.

“We need your landlord to agree to make the additional repayments in rates to pay the cost of the solar system,” Gavin explains. “We’re trying to develop a method where the landlord and the tenant sign an agreement. This is where the tenant says I will pay the repayment costs while I’m a tenant. Or you could have a landlord who offers to pay for the system. That hasn’t worked in the past, because the landlords don’t see the benefit.”

Gavin says council plans to seek out people who have a good relationship with their landlord. This is to see if trialling an installation agreement will work. It could serve as a model to other renters and their landlords.

For example, there could be an addendum to the lease where the tenant pays for the solar while they getting cheaper electricity. When they leave, the landlord could either renegotiate a similar agreement with the new tenants. Or increase the rent to cover installation costs.

Solar is another asset to attract tenants to a property. It meets the tenants’ need for cheaper power as well as the landlord’s desire to attract and retain good tenants.

Council Solar Bulk Buy Program

The council also runs a solar bulk buy program, which is also available to those looking for cheaper prices. The systems are not GST exempt like the Solar Saver scheme. However, the residents can get installation when they want, unlike the Solar Saver program. The discount through the bulk buy program is roughly 10-15 per cent.

“What we’ve found is that some people in the community don’t trust the electricity retailers and a lot of them don’t trust solar contractors either,” Gavin says. “But they do trust council, they see us an independent, trustworthy broker. Many pensioners have said to us that they’ve been wanting to install solar, to do something for the environment, but I didn’t know who to trust.

“The bulk buy program is good for people who are in a hurry and want to get their solar installed quickly, but are a bit short of the cash to do so.”

If you would like to know more about Darebin City Council’s Solar Saver and bulk buy programs visit council’s website call (03) 8470 8888 or email solar@darebin.vic.gov.au