Comfort levels have to be just right in the aged care sector or complaints will mount up from the residents and visitors – and no-one wants that to happen. Air-conditioning systems are the beating hearts of care facilities and power bills are a burden they must shoulder.

Solar and LED retrofits are proven solutions to pushing down load at energy-hungry sites, and clean energy specialist Verdia is about halfway through a program of improving the energy outlook at about 200 age care homes across Australia. EcoGeneration spoke with Verdia CEO Paul Peters for an update.

How many property owners and investor groups are involved in the project and how did you approach them all?

The LED and solar PV program is being delivered to six aged care providers across Australia. It includes the installations of 36,000 LED lights and 14,000 solar panels across 91 aged care homes. We’ve been managing more than 80 installers, electricians and contractors working across all the sites over the past 12 to 18 months. We’re assessing a further 100 aged care facilities operated by another 10-plus providers and we hope to begin that second stage later this year.

We take and end-to-end approach with each of the providers, working closely with each to assess ways to reduce energy use and costs, and improve the amenity for residents at each of their homes. Most providers don’t have the technical knowledge in-house to understand the costs and benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions.

How did you sell the benefits of clean energy and energy efficiency? Is it mainly an economic decision these days?

Staffing costs make up about 70% of operating costs in the aged care sector. We set about helping our clients understand ways they could reduce non-labour operational costs, while also improving lighting and environmental performance.

We showed our clients how they could improve the amenity of their facilities by improving the quality and consistency of lighting throughout the homes. The upgrade to modern LED lights results in a substantial reduction in energy consumption, and maintenance and replacement costs.  

The energy consumption profile of a typical home aligns quite well to the generation profile of solar PV, meaning the solar can directly offset consumption during the day. We analysed our clients existing energy data and showed them how the solar generation reduces their energy consumption and costs, along with reduced carbon emissions.

Combined, these were compelling reasons to act and doing nothing actually costs them more in the long run. As an example, one client told us a property maintenance worker spent one day a week just maintaining and replacing lighting throughout the home. Because LEDs last longer, they require less maintenance and are much more likely to be working when they are needed most.

Do the clients own the systems or are these PPAs?

Our aged care clients typically own the installations as a part of this program. The program was driven by the need to improve lighting amenity and environmental performance, and reduce energy and maintenance costs. The clients get a five-to-six-year payback on their investment, then additional savings in energy costs over 15 to 20 years.

Are STCs applicable in all cases or are some projects aggregated into LGCs?

In most cases the installation at each aged care home is less than 100kW, so they are eligible for STCs. Some of our clients with larger homes have installed larger systems that generate LGCs.

How does energy load in the aged care sector match generation from solar?

Aged care homes are in use 24 hours, seven days a week.  The load is mostly driven by lighting and heating or cooling. Given the sensitive nature of the homes, lighting is typically operating throughout the day to ensure amenity for residents. As a result, the typical consumption profile of the homes aligns very well to the generation from solar PV.  

With the combined solution of both lighting and solar PV, we ensure we only recommend a solar system size that offsets the remaining energy load, after the impacts of the new lighting are accounted for. In almost all cases, all the energy generated on site is used on site.  The average reduction in total energy use is about 30-40%, split roughly between solar and lighting.

What cost savings have been achieved so far?

Two to three years ago, a typical residential aged care facility was spending about $700 a year on energy per bed. That’s now increased to about $950 per bed, which is around a 35% increase. At the same time the cost of solar PV has decreased by about 30% and LED lighting technology has vastly improved.

In the case of one NSW aged care home, we installed 800 LEDs and a 99kW solar system, and it helped reduced their energy costs by 38%, or about $53,000 a year.

For the current program of 91 homes, the solutions implemented will be saving more than $2 million a year in energy costs.

Has battery storage been included in any of the sites?

Batteries have not been a part of this program to date, largely due to the high costs of batteries and the economic returns available. However, we ensure that our designs and solutions can accommodate batteries in the future.

What effect has the LED conversion had on energy use at the sites?

The exact numbers will depend on the specific type of lights, but on average when we switch a light over to the LED, it results in a 50% reduction in energy use. Typically, the LED lighting upgrades reduce the total consumption at the home by up to 20%.

Lighting technology has improved a lot over the past decade. We looked at the existing lighting in homes and saw a range of decorative glass and recessed lights using standard CFL and halogen luminaries, and older style fluoro tubes. We demonstrated how different styles of LEDs could provide a better quality of light for each space and reduce energy consumption by 50%.

LEDs perform better than most other lights because they don’t waste energy by producing heat. An LED luminaire is also expected to last at least five times as long as old lighting technology, meaning less maintenance.

Have you had any feedback from residents? Any new converts to clean energy?

The feedback from aged care staff, residents and their families has been extremely positive. Energy reduction and green initiatives are occurring across many sectors in the country, and I think the residents are happy to know that their home is leading the way in reducing energy consumption and generating renewable energy on-site.

There is overwhelming appreciation for the improved lighting throughout the homes, both from residents and staff. For example, brighter lights in the bathroom and kitchen areas, and softer warmer lights in other living spaces. Given the residents and staff spend a large portion of their day in these areas the benefits of high-quality lighting cannot be underestimated.