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Cost, climate and green credentials: How commercial solar stacks up

Solar panels
2 August 2021

Residential solar has enjoyed broad popularity in Australia, with more than 29 per cent of free-standing homes equipped with a photovoltaic (PV) system as of March 2021. On the other hand, commercial solar projects have traditionally seen a much slower uptake, in large part due to some unique design challenges and considerations.

However, with many organisations now looking for ways to decarbonise, reduce costs and create sustainable operations, solar installations across government buildings, shopping centres, and schools represent an increasingly attractive business investment. And with Australia’s rooftop solar market setting new installation records despite the disruption caused by COVID-19, there is massive potential for the commercial and industrial market, too.

“It’s been a perfect storm with the cost of energy and electricity prices rising, solar technology improving as well as getting cheaper all the time, and government incentives and low-interest loans,” explained Ramin Danasfaleh, Team Leader – Renewables at HFM, a BGIS company.

“Many businesses are already aware of renewable energy solutions and their importance in sustainable growth. Solar now increasingly stacks up as a business case and is being installed equally for environmental reasons and cost savings.”

The specialist team at HFM has been making buildings and sites across the country cheaper to run and healthier for the environment for more than 15 years. In his role, Ramin is responsible for the design, modelling and analysis of sustainable and renewable power supply systems, and has seen first-hand how some sectors have a much stronger appetite for commercial solar than others.

“Traditionally, sectors with large and consistent consumption could get the most benefit of onsite solar power generation, as they do not require a battery storage system,” Ramin said. “Shopping centres, hotels, stadia and food and beverage industries with large refrigeration and air conditioning loads and large roof space are good examples of this category. However, with advancing battery technologies and the competitive price of the battery systems, more sectors can achieve reasonable savings, including those that have typically been unlikely to deploy solar PV systems, such as commercial offices with limited roof space and industrial facilities with fluctuating consumption loads.”

“Furthermore and contrary to common assumption, it’s not always the case that a business even needs roof space to deploy a solar PV system. There are various parameters that should be reviewed and analysed to determine the right approach, and some customers would prefer to deploy a solar carport or a ground-mount solar PV system. This purely depends on the site-specific conditions and the project requirements, and HFM has achieved impressive outcomes in challenging and complex cases where a mixture of energy-saving and renewable-energy systems have been proposed.”

In 2018, HFM began working with the Karratha International Hotel in Western Australia to deliver such a result, having previously conducted an energy audit for the facility in 2011 that revealed an annual electricity consumption of 1,430,000 kWh. In addition to its large footprint, the hotel complex comprised 80 accommodation rooms spread across the property, which made the deployment of a centralised solar and hot-water system very challenging. “We proposed multiple hot-water plants and smart solar PV technology to overcome those issues, and ultimately project managed the delivery of three solar PV systems with 193 kW total capacity in 2020,” said Ramin. “Our modelling forecasts that the deployed solar PV systems will reduce the grid power consumption by 32 per cent and reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of the properties by approximately 245 tonnes per annum. Further to that, we increased Karratha International Hotel’s indicative NABERS rating from 1.5 stars to 5.0 stars.”

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While the main benefit of commercial solar is electricity-cost reduction, the additional possibility of an improved National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) rating can be instrumental in attracting tenants and buyers. “Tenants and buyers respond to a strong NABERS rating, because they know that the building’s efficient performance means lower variable outgoings for tenants and lower vacancy rates for owners,” explained Ramin. “HFM has one of the largest and most experienced teams of NABERS accredited assessors across Australia, and we perform NABERS ratings for offices, tenancies, apartment buildings, shopping centres, hotels and data centres.”

While a combination of grants, incentives and market forces continue to drive uptake of commercial solar, the primary obstacle in the way of widespread deployment is the lack of the required network infrastructure to accommodate large-scale solar PV systems.

Renewable energy and clean energy technologies will play an increasingly important role in our modern and dynamic electricity market, necessitating large battery storage systems, sophisticated control systems and a diverse energy mix. These activities require long-term planning and significant investment from state and federal governments. Encouragingly, in 2021 renewable energy zones and dispatchable energy storage were listed as “high-priority initiatives” by Infrastructure Australia for the first time.

“In the meantime, the network providers and the energy retailers work closely with end users to undertake various activities so more renewables can be deployed, including incentivising end users to shift their load and limit their solar generation – essentially moving electricity consumption from one time period to another to avoid surplus solar generation – so the network can maintain stability,” explained Ramin. “For the increasing amount of businesses considering investment in solar, the benefits are considerable, from real cost savings and demonstrating green credentials to making your building more attractive to prospective tenants or buyers. Whether our clients are operating a shopping centre, hospital, venue or corporate office, our team at HFM are well placed to help them reap the rewards of a solar PV system.”

Ramin Danasfaleh, Team Leader Renewables – HFM Asset Management, a BGIS company
Cloe Maxwell, Communications Manager – BGIS APAC