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Time to address energy poverty in Canberra

By Rebecca Vassarotti 17 May 2018 10
house rugged up

Left out in the cold: Let’s ensure all households are treated equally and not subjected to energy poverty. 

Many of us who live in Canberra love its seasons, and at this time of year as we move around the suburbs, we are constantly reminded of the beauty of this city in Autumn. Of course, this comes with chillier weather, and as it gets colder, all of us brace for an increase in energy costs as zero temperatures mean that most of us have turned our heaters on.

There are few local households who have been able to ignore the increased cost of keeping warm – particularly given we have seen such sharp rises in utility costs in recent years. This year’s Cost of Living Report, released by ACT Council of Social Service last week, highlighted the increasing costs of utilities as one of the key issues facing the lowest income households, a group that is being disproportionally impacted by this past year’s increases. This includes rises in the cost of gas and other household fuels of 17.8%, well above the national rise of 7.8% and a rise in electricity prices of 10.6%, below the national increase of 12.4%, but still significant. When you are trying to get by on a low-income in a city where average incomes are high and costs such as housing, transport and essential services are high, the reality of energy poverty is real for many lower-income households in the ACT.

The ACT Government is working hard to reduce carbon emissions – an activity that is essential if we are to do our part for the environment and future generations. In undertaking this work, it is vital that we recognise the emergence of energy poverty and ensure that our move towards a carbon-neutral future is one where transition costs are not unfairly borne by those least able to afford it. We need to make sure that this transition does not inadvertently create a divide between the energy ‘haves and have-nots’. As noted by the head of the Australian Energy Market Operator, Audrey Zibelman recently, there is the potential for this to occur as those households who could afford the upfront investment in rooftop solar and battery technologies move off the network, leaving lower-income households stranded on utility networks that require ongoing investment in maintenance and new infrastructure that is borne by a shrinking customer base.

We need to ensure we are intentional in supporting all households to transition to forms of energy that are affordable – for individual households and the future environment.

There are some initiatives that have been introduced to begin to address this issue. This includes programs such as the ACTsmart’s Low Income Outreach Energy Efficiency Program , the Solar for Low Income Household Program and some investment into efficiency upgrades in ACT public housing. There are calls to do more, however, with groups such as the Better Renting Action Group reviving calls to introduce mandatory minimum energy ratings for private rental properties, and the Ginninderry development rolling out gas free suburbs due to the rising costs of this energy source.

Given the task we have ahead of us, however, a key question is: Are we going far enough to address this issue and ensure that we meet the future in an equitable and planned way that does not see growing parts of our community marginalised and unable to afford essential services such as warmth in winter? An important next step may be to actually identify and measure the extent of energy poverty we are seeing in the local community. This is an approach we currently use for other essential services such as housing, with measures to assess housing stress. This could be an important source of data to assess the significance of the issue and possible solutions. As we know – we pay attention to the things we measure. While it may sound challenging to do, this is an approach that other countries have been adopting for some time – For example, the United Kingdom has already done work in this area and produces annual statistics on ‘fuel poverty’ to drive policy and respond to this issue. This has seen increased political will and investment in energy efficiency programs.

I think we need to do more to ensure everyone is supported to reduce energy use and increase energy efficiency. I think that the idea of identifying a measure of energy poverty is one way to help us address this issue. What do you think?

What’s Your opinion?


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Time to address energy poverty in Canberra
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bringontheevidence 7:36 pm 18 May 18

Putting heavy handed regulations on landlords is just going to lead to a reduction in available rental properties. That will do nothing but put more upwards pressure on rents.

The only way to solve the pincipal/agent problem with housing is to give owners an incentive to invest in energy saving measures. I’ve already talked about the (morally bankrupt) additional land tax that is applied to rental properties and the impact this has on rents, so how about a policy to give a discount to owners off their land tax if the property meets EER targets?

It’d be good (for once) to see the Greens push for a pragmatic policy change that actually helps low income households, rather than hollow virtue signalling like normal.

bigred 3:20 pm 18 May 18

Energy poverty? Really? It is more a consequence of poor budgeting/planning/resource management by folk caught with a large electricity and/or gas bill. Maybe government’s role in all this is better education and encouraging schemes to allow for near real time accounting/payment for energy use. My experience with folk struggling with energy bills has shown me they are the same people who drive the V8 car to the shop for the milk and ciggies, use a clothes dryer every day, consume takeaway food a few times a week and neither zone their houses or encourage their progeny to take short showers or close doors when going outside. Some people have always struggled to pay their energy bills, and always will because there is insufficient linkage between consumption and the true cost.

    bj_ACT 8:59 pm 18 May 18

    Big Red, I think you need to meet a few more of the Canberra working poor and that may change your stereotypical views.

    I have had to do some data crunching and processing for bank foreclosures and I saw first hand why Kambah was listed as the most Mortgage Stressed suburb in Australia a few years ago.

    Believe me, it’s normal people in modest houses, with modest jobs (that they have often just lost) who are the working poor and suffering housing stress and struggling to pay for electricity and rates rises.

    They aren’t driving V8s and spending their money on frivolous things. They’re going without meals, new clothes and without entertainment to try and cover the increasing Bills and Government charges.

    It’s the blind people of ‘well off canberra’ who are missing how the other half actually live.

    bigred 7:27 am 19 May 18

    bj_ACT we are seeing and saying something very similar actually. I am sure you will agree it can be a bit of a slippery slope these folk get on often due to poor financial and energy literacy. It is also intergenerational and I think it is important that governments help save these people from themselves, and as the banking royal commission is showing crack down on the shonkies who are taking advantage of these folk to generate ongoing commissions. This is an Australia wide problem, not a Kambah or ACT only issue.

    bj_ACT 8:44 am 19 May 18

    BigRed, Why do you say that I claim it’s only an issue for Kambah or ACT residents? I didn’t write this, let alone even think this.

    I just disagree with your experience that people who are struggling with increasing costs of things like electricity, are wasting their money on V8s and cigarettes.

    bigred 4:18 pm 19 May 18

    bj_ACT, so my experience differs from yours in that you disagree with 2 of my 5 examples! Maybe it is the SUV (black Kluger), pokies and pre mix bundies that are all the rage in Kambah instead? You also now make the revelation that there is an Australia wide issue, thus making it hard to focus the blame on the ACT Government alone (while I agree it needs a bit of attention due to its fees and charges).

chewy14 11:49 am 18 May 18

It’s funny that this is a direct and desired outcome from the energy policies adopted by the Greens and the ALP in Canberra.

bj_ACT 10:33 am 18 May 18

Spot on Rebecca. The ACT Government has totally ignored the implications of their key policies on low income renters and mortgaged homeowners in Canberra.

Increasing rates heavily across the city, but primarily spending the proceeds of the hikes in the centre of the city, hurts the outer suburban poor.

There are Government funds for rooftop Solar and other energy initiatives, but the vast majority of the government funding goes to the wealthy areas who can afford to make the changes to their house. This government’s policies continue to make life more and more difficult for the outer suburban working poor of canberra.

Labor and Greens ‘talk a lot’ about helping the working poor, but implement badly designed policies that end up hurting them.

Queanbeyanite 7:30 am 18 May 18

Reap what ye sow!

Let’s make power three times more expensive and then wonder why the poor can’t afford it.

Clare Moore 7:02 pm 17 May 18

We definitely need to encourage landlords to make sure their rentals are more energy efficient. In such a tight rental market, tenants don't feel they can ask for necessary upgrades and struggle through the winter with either huge energy bills or health issues from the cold.

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