Australia’s ‘greenest’ hotel pioneers strata fees for solar, and an EV charging station

Known for it’s beautiful hinterland that sweeps down towards pristine beaches, Port Macquarie is home to a magnificent natural environment. Local tourism and retirement living is the lifeblood of the area, but at what environmental cost to the area? One strata-titled hotel decided to address that issue and along the way increased return to apartment owners and achieved an impressive milestone.

A room at the hotel
A room at the hotel

Four hundred kilometres north of Sydney sits the stunning coastal town of Port Macquarie, a popular retirement spot for anyone who spent their working years dreaming of a fishing boat and tackle box.
It’s also a tourist destination, with the regular population of around 45,000 people swelling by thousands during school and public holidays when tourism operators enjoy the largesse of city slickers spending up big on eco-tours or at local eateries.
View from The Observatory
View from The Observatory

But, while the area is known for it’s natural beauty and relaxed lifestyle, the impacts of tourism on the environment are considerable, particularly on the delicate eco-systems of the hinterland and the famed waterways, along which jet boating is popular.
One business has taken steps to help protect the local environment – and the planet at large – becoming one of the few hotels in Australia to be 100% carbon neutral, thanks to a range of energy, water and waste-saving measures.
The Observatory is an independent 4.5 star hotel overlooking the beaches of Port Macquarie and the dedication of it’s 80 strata title owners to tackling climate change has earned it the moniker of ‘Australia’s greenest hotel’.
“Our sustainability plan stemmed from variety of factors,” explains Managing Director Chris Denny. “We want to be socially responsible, our staff enjoy working in this environment but most importantly, as an independent hotel, it helped create our brand identity.”
Street view of the hotel
Street view of the hotel

However, Chris says the 230 solar panels on the hotel roof that provide power for 5000 guests annually, had to economically viable and show a forecasted return on investment for apartment owners.
“We had to present a business case to the owners, that was justified in economic terms.  While we very much believe in the triple bottom line of ‘People, Planet, Profit’, in our case we had to ensure the guest experience met with our sustainability objectives, while delivering a return to our owners.”
“I’ve found it interesting over the years to find that those three things impact on each other; for example, sustainability has become our defining brand and becomes part of the guest experience, which has has in turn driven profit.” Chris says.
The 230 PV panels that cater for 5000 guests annually
The 230 PV panels that cater for 5000 guests annually

“We have great beachfront location and great service, but so do many other hotels. Our sustainability is our point of difference, as well as being a good social thing to do.”
He said that people are often offering him advice on how they can further ‘green up’ The Observatory, which invariably have to be discarded due to the effect they would have on guest experience.
“For instance, I can wind back the pool temperature by one degree, which would save me dollars as well as significant amounts of carbon.” Chris explains. “But as soon as I do that the guest complaints go up.  Same issue with toilet paper; I can get carbon neutral paper, but guests don’t like to use it!”
“Guests come to us because they want an experience they don’t get at home and we can provide that while being sustainable. But, we also won’t do anything that compromises the guest experience.”
The pool at the right temperature
The pool at the right temperature

In recognition of their commitment to sustainability, The Observatory has won a number of awards, including the United Nations World Environment Day Award, a NSW Green Globe Award, the Qantas Award for Excellence in Sustainability and the World Boutique Hotel’s Sustainability Award.
“We won the NSW Green Globe Awards and the United Nations award because our business model is replicable; in fact, both award citations mentioned our innovation in applying sustainability principles to a strata title, and the fact that it could be carried across to other similar properties.”
Chris explains that the 230 PV panels on the roof of The Observatory were funded by strata fees, which, he says, has caught the imagination of other strata managers who are always looking for the best return on investment.
“Every strata building sits on a sinking fund that is earmarked for maintenance works,” says Chris. “Typically, it sits in a bank getting 4 to 5% return.”
“We used ours to fund the solar infrastructure and, following some quite conservative economic modelling, we’re now able to show a 16% return on investment. This means we’ll be cash positive by 2019, so over the life of the system, around 20 to 25 years, thats an enormous positive cash implication.”
“There are enormous cash reserves in strata buildings across Australia and all have the capacity to invest in solar, purely from an economic standpoint. In fact, I’m staggered there aren’t more strata buildings considering it.”
While guests to The Observatory aren’t charged a premium to enjoy a clean and green stay in one of the hotels regular rooms, they can opt into the O-Zone program.
The power monitor in reception showing guests how much renewable energy is used at The Observatory
The power monitor in reception showing guests how much renewable energy is used at The Observatory

Named for the protective layer of atmospheric gasses, the O-Zone program invites guests to pay a voluntary premium of $50 which allows them the extra benefits of a fresh local food platter, green bathroom products, in-room fitness equipment and Wii-Fit set up as well as tour bikes for getting around town.
In another first for an Australian hotel, The Observatory have recently installed a car-charging unit for the Tesla electric vehicle which are anticipated to hit the road in the next 12 months. Complimentary for hotel guests, the charger means visitors will be able to charge overnight and reach both Sydney and Brisbane the following day.
“Tesla looks like its going to change the face of renewables and the vehicles are superb, if a bit expensive at the moment,” Chris says. “Installing a car charging station was again about our branding; we saw the opportunity to be the first charging station north of Sydney, which works geographically as Tesla vehicles have a range of 500km.”
Car charging station at the hotel
Car charging station at the hotel

“We have the PV system so what better way to charge the vehicles, rather than from power from coal-fired plants? Again, it’s a guest service.”
The next step for the visionary group of investors at The Observatory is battery storage, which Chris says will further cement their position as Australia’s most environmentally hotel.
“The motivation for people buying an apartment at The Observatory is to see a return on their investment,” he says. “There’s a lot of pride amongst the owners of the building because we’re seen as pushing the envelope and pioneering this business model.”

The specs: The specs: The Observatory has a 56.5kW solar PV system and 3 x 20kW SMA Tripower inverters which run DC power from roof to basement in a conduit hidden behind a storm water drain outside the building. There are 230 x 260w REC panels (chosen for salt resistance), it was one of the first installations of Australian made SunLoc commercial framing pitched at 15 degrees to give self cleaning in a hostile marine environment. It runs at 91% self consumption with the extra 9% exported (donated) back to grid.  The PV system was installed by Stuart Watson from Wauchope Solar.

Emma Sutcliffe is a journalist, climate activist & proud owner of an off-grid property in Little River, near Melbourne. As Contributing Editor to One Step Off The Grid she meets other off-gridders, a job that makes use of her considerable skills for nattering & drinking tea. If you’d like to share your story, she’d love to hear from you.

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