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After Jules Stewart ordered an electric vehicle, her next move was to ask the property manager of her northern Sydney apartment building about installing a powerpoint in the garage.
The 60-year-old speechwriter says she was happy to foot the bill, and didn’t want anything fancy – like a Tesla Powerwall or three-phase charging – just a plug to charge overnight.
“It would have been just your run-of-the-mill 240-volt powerpoint,” Stewart says. “I didn’t think the owner would mind because they’re going to end up with power in their garage they didn’t have before, so it’s a bit of a win for them.”
But since making the request in December she has heard nothing, despite following up twice.
Stewart rents her apartment – one of 25 in a block built in the 60s – so her property manager would have to check with the strata management committee whether she was allowed to install the plug, before asking the owner for permission.
“I’m desperate to get into an EV. There’s all these disincentives at the moment for EVs and it’s not a sustainable position,” Stewart says.
“It should be easy.”
The hurdles facing apartment-dwellers who want to use electric vehicles, install solar panels or switch from gas to electric for cooking and heating are not just financial, says Associate Prof Cathy Sherry, of the University of New South Wales law and justice faculty. And for those who rent – about half the people who live in apartments across the country – the barriers can be insurmountable.
A conservative count in the 2020 Australasian Strata Insights report by the UNSW City Futures Research Centre found there were 340,601 apartment blocks across Australia, home to 2.2 million people.
Sherry says the strata system – collective management of common parts of the property – often works against optimal decision-making.
Only owners can vote on strata committees, and in many cases the interests of those who live in their apartments and investors are at odds when it comes to improvements that will reduce emissions, but cost money in the short term.
A little over one in 10 apartments across Australia are left vacant by investors. In Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia, the rate is closer to one in five.
“Investors typically just want the money,” Sherry says. “What is the incentive for anyone who owns an investment property they don’t even rent out to make green upgrades in an apartment building?”
‘Financial benefit from doing the right thing’
The Zinc Building in Alexandria, Sydney illustrates what can be done.
Nathan Hage, 45, is a supply chain logistics worker who serves on the building’s strata committee and says when it was built in 2005, the developers paid no attention to sustainability.
Two decades on, the 45-apartment building has 10 EV chargers in the basement, with the capacity for more on demand, and 24kW of solar power on the roof, with another 70kW to be installed in the next few weeks.
“There’s already people who come around, stand in the car park, look at the EV chargers and say: how do you do this?” Hage says.
The process has been helped by gadgets such as the device about the size of a computer installed in the building’s electrical room that enables an equitable distribution of solar power between the apartments.
Hage says he was lucky in that the hardest part was convincing other apartment owners to commit.
“Each step you take it becomes more compelling because the benefits build off each other,” he says. “Once you make the leap to go solar, you’re spending less so you can afford to put more money into more solar and other improvements.”
Now he says the building is considering battery options and replacing its gas hot water system.
“The glorious piece is that for those who don’t care about the environment, or have the time to care about it, there’s a demonstrable financial benefit from doing the right thing, so there’s something for everyone,” he says.
Each building will have different needs
In many other cases, however, the process has been much more frustrating. Brent Clark is the chief executive of Wattblock, a consultancy that works with strata committees to improve the sustainability of apartment blocks. He says strata management contributes to the inertia on electrification.
“Think of strata as the fourth tier of government,” Clark says. “You’ve got federal, state, local and then strata.
“Those buildings aren’t going to decarbonise of their own volition, they need help from the first, second and third tiers of government to help them on the path, to decarbonise, to electrification.”
Residents of older buildings face the biggest challenges, Clark says.
“The most common is the red- or white-brick walk-up built in the 60s or 70s,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll only have as little as 100 amps from the nearest substation for the whole building.”
As each building will have different needs, there is no one-size-fits-all solution but Clark says older buildings will likely be forced to at least double or triple their capacity to meet the future needs of their tenants.
“We had one of our customers, they wanted to add another 100 amps into their building. They were looking at paying $100k.”
Dale Cohen, the secretary of the Richmont strata committee in the inner Sydney suburb of Pyrmont, says the longer action on decarbonising apartment blocks is delayed, the more pressing – and the more expensive – it becomes.
Cohen, now a Tesla owner, was driving a Mitsubishi plug-in hybrid in 2017 when he approached his building’s management committee about upgrades to support EV charging in the three-floor basement garage.
He began to wonder what would happen if more people started driving electric vehicles. What if everyone charged at once? How much capacity did the building’s power supply have? Who would pay? And how would they do it?
Answering those questions took five years.
One of the most pressing challenges was getting the votes on the strata committee needed to approve any change – one that eased with reforms in NSW, the ACT and Western Australia that lowered the voting threshold needed for approval from 75% to 50% of owners.
Then there were logistical and engineering issues associated with retrofitting a nine-storey building – and the cost.
“To do a big bang and electrify everything in our building would cost over $500k,” Cohen says. “We’d need to have 100% of owners to have EVs to make that viable.
“I’ve said before this is the time bomb in the basement for apartment buildings across the country. This is what I mean. That’s how big the problem is.”
Cohen says his building has now settled on a staged rollout that will allow every car space to be electrified as demand grows, a project that will still cost “north of $100k”.
Chris Duggan, the managing director at Strata Community Association Australasia, says electric vehicle charging has become a proxy for broader issues around sustainability and the risks posed by climate change.
“Traditionally policy has been strata-blind and housing policy more generally has been squarely focused on single-dwelling policy,” Duggan says. “There will come a point where EV charging becomes an infrastructure requirement.”
If nothing is done tenants will vote with their feet, he says, and buildings that can’t provide sustainable amenities will fall in value.
Duggan says a government education campaign is needed to guide management committees looking to make the switch, and a strata-specific grant program to help pay for upgrades to older buildings.
Sherry says governments have “very rarely” mandated the retrofitting of existing apartment buildings, and most successful measures, such as the installation of smoke alarms, and window-locks to stop children falling out, have been small and cheap.
Addressing climate change, she says, will be much more complicated.
“There are hundreds of thousands of strata schemes in Australia, there’s no point them all reinventing the wheel,” she says.
“They need mandates and guidance. That’s the reality.”