How can I go about installing solar panels for my apartment block?
Property clinic: I am wondering about the pros and cons and whose permission to seek
As PV solar panels use direct or indirect sunlight to generate power, they generate power during the day but most electricity use for block common areas is in the evening or at night. Photograph: iStock
I own an apartment on the second floor of a two-storey block. I am about to start a renovation project and wondered about approaching the owners’ management company at our agm to seek permission to install a PV solar panel on the roof. I estimate that the usable space for solar panels on the south-facing side of the roof is around 168sq m (1,808sq ft). So, in theory each apartment could have access to 15sq m (161sq ft) or so of roof, given that there are 10 apartments in the block.
I understand that the roof is a common area and I will have to engage with the owners’ management company to try and develop this idea. Have come across this issue before and, if so, what might be the pros/cons? Perhaps the management company should also consider PV panels for the common-area electricity?
I note that the Green Party is keen to increase the installation of solar panels, which may mean that grants might be available in the future.
You raise a number of interlinked issues. I would note at the outset that while managing agents have a perspective on these issues, we are not specialists on the technology involved so you may need separate advice on that.
While photovoltaic (PV) solar panels have been installed on some pioneering apartment developments in Ireland for some time, they remain rare. However, from reviews undertaken by apartment developments in the last couple of years, it does seem that the economics of their installation have improved. That said, for the common areas of apartment developments, the advice is still generally that the payback time still does not warrant the initial investment.
As PV solar panels use direct or indirect sunlight to generate power, they generate power during the day but most electricity use for block common areas is in the evening or at night. As such, investment in a solar battery is required to store the electricity until it is needed and the efficiency of these batteries has improved in recent years.
However, for common areas, electricity usage tends to be low. Normally, there is no heating and the lights would be low-energy LEDs, perhaps supplemented by motion sensors. There may be other electricity usage, for example, for lifts or gates, but again usage tends to be low so payback time for PV panels is quite long.
For one apartment, like your own, the economics will depend on the pattern of electricity usage. A complication, as you note, is that the apartment owner does not own any portion of the roof of the building, which is instead owned by the owners’ management company (OMC) as it forms part of the common areas. As such, permission from the OMC would be required to retrofit PV panels.
Certainly, you are within your rights to ask the OMC for this and it may be worth exploring with the managing agent and OMC board prior to the agm. The job of the OMC will be to consider if your request is in the wider interest of the OMC (ie the collective of owners).
Reasons why the OMC might agree to this would be that it supports the environmental outcome you seek and, as you live in a small development, it would seek to facilitate you. That said, there are possible downsides. The board/agent would need to ensure proper standards of installation and no damage to the roof. They may also seek to ensure that future access to the roof for maintenance and inspection is not hindered.
Other owners may ask what happens if a leak develops under a panel and how this is accessed. Another concern may be that one owner doing this could damage the uniform look of the building. A final common concern may be a reluctance to create a precedent by providing one owner with exclusive use of part of the common areas. (I would note that several of these complications arise due to the PV panels being retrofitted rather than being there from the outset.)
As such, you will need to provide reassurance to the OMC on these questions. If you can do so, and they agree to your proposal, then the arrangement will need a legal underpinning – a licence agreement between the OMC and yourself. This will set out the conditions under which the panels can be installed and perhaps criteria for their removal in the future if the OMC wishes to do so. The OMC may ask you to pay any legal costs involved in drawing up this licence.
A further relevant issue is planning. You mention a possible roof area of 15sq m (161sq ft) linked to your apartment. The SEAI website notes that only installations of under 12sq m (129sq ft) are exempt from planning permission and, as such, even if the OMC supports your suggestion, you may need to go through a process of obtaining permission.
Finally, you note the possibility of grants in relation to PV panels. The 2020 programme for government commits to develop “a solar energy strategy for rooftop and ground-based photovoltaics to ensure that a greater share of our electricity needs are met through solar power”.
A programme of grants for apartment developments and an ability to sell excess energy generated to the national grid would certainly accelerate take-up. As with electric-vehicle charging points, however, retrospective installation is complex in multi-unit developments.
To move both PVs and EVs on, it would be great to see some publicly funded pilot projects in a selection of multi-unit developments (small and large, urban and rural) to show how this can be done and to generate learning for OMCs.
Finbar McDonnell is a chartered property manager and a member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland scsi.ie