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1 in 4 households struggle to pay power bills. Here are 5 ways to tackle hidden energy poverty


One in four Australian households are struggling to pay their gas and electricity bills. As winter approaches, energy price rises will make it even harder. Cold houses and lockdowns due to energy poverty threaten people’s health and well-being.

Income assistance for benefit recipients and retrofitting houses to make them more thermally efficient – ​​by adding insulation, for example – can ease the burden. And if it is not too cold or too hot in the house, people’s health benefits. This in turn relieves pressure on public health.

However, many people miss out on help because programs often fail to recognize their difficulties. Their energetic vulnerability is hidden.

Read more: If you’re renting, chances are your house is cold. With power prices rising, here’s what you can do to stay warm

What forms does hidden energy poverty take?

Our newly published study has revealed six aspects of hidden energy vulnerability. These are:

  1. underconsumption – households limit or switch off cooling, heating and/or lighting to avoid interruptions

  2. incidental masking – other social support, such as housing benefit, masks difficulties in paying utility bills

  3. some households disguise energy poverty by using public amenities such as showers or pooling money for inter-family bills

  4. some people hide their hardships out of pride or for fear of legal consequences, such as losing custody of children if food cannot be refrigerated because of a power outage

  5. a poor understanding of energy efficiency and the health risks of cold or hot homes adds to the problem

  6. eligibility criteria for energy assistance programs may exclude some vulnerable households. For example, people with an income just above the social assistance limit miss out on energy concessions. Energy retailer deprivation programs also ignore people who have voluntarily disconnected due to financial hardship.

Read more: ‘The one from cold or death from stress?’: Social housing often falls below global health guidelines

5 ways to help these households

Our studies suggest that trusted intermediaries, such as those working in health care, energy and social services, can play a critical role in identifying and supporting such households.

First, energy efficiency and hardship can be initiatives integrated into the home care system My Aged Care. Identification, response and referral of energy poverty risks could be built into the national service assessment form. This can leverage existing customer screening processes.

The system’s first-line staff could connect high-risk households with energy consultants. These advisors can help people access better energy contracts, concessions, home retrofits, and appliance upgrade programs.

A new Commonwealth “energy supplement” could help pay for essential energy-related home modifications. This would help prevent My Aged Care funds from being used for immediate care needs.

Read more: We need a ‘lemon law’ to make all the homes we buy and rent more energy efficient

Second, GPs and other health professionals could help identify energy vulnerability in patients with worrisome medical conditions. They can also provide letters of support highlighting tenants’ health-related need for air conditioners or heaters.

Third, energy suppliers could use household energy data to identify those who are underusing or often disconnected. They can also identify those who don’t have “best offer” deals. They could proactively monitor the eligibility of troubled households for ongoing energy concessions and one-time debt relief grants offered by states and territories.

Energy suppliers could also make it easier for social housing companies to automatically renew concessions for tenants.

Fourth, municipalities could use their data to identify high-risk households. Think of people with a parking permit for the disabled, with a discount or with payment arrears from the municipality, on the waiting list for social housing, customers of Meals on Wheels and tenants of social housing. Maternity and child health nurses and home and community care workers who make home visits can draw attention to cold or hot homes.

Municipalities could employ in-house energy consultants to provide assistance and energy literacy training. City maintenance teams could develop bulk purchase, insulation, and neighborhood renovation programs.

Strategies to reduce vulnerability to energy poverty should be part of municipal health and wellness plans. Under these strategies, net carbon-free funds set up by states and municipalities to reduce emissions can fund targeted housing modifications.

We also suggest setting up a central helpline to improve access to energy assistance through local referrals.

Fifth, residential energy efficiency programs could become more person-centred. For example, we already have that Residential efficiency scorecard audits to assess the thermal quality of a home. These audits can also examine whether concessions and better energy deals are available to the household.

Read more: We all need energy to survive. Here are 3 ways to make sure Australia’s crazy energy prices leave no one behind

Capacity building at all levels

Capacity building strategies are needed at all levels – individual, community and government – ​​to challenges to reduce energy poverty. Current obstacles include the competing priorities of service providers, lack of time and resources, and poor coordination between silos programs and services.

Access to essential energy services should be part of the strategic health plans of national and local governments. Housing, energy, and health departments could work together to incorporate home retrofits into preventative health programs.

A comprehensive approach is needed to overcome hidden energy poverty. It should include public education, integrated services and well-funded energy efficiency programs. Regulatory reforms and continued financing are both needed to improve the availability of energy-efficient, affordable housing for tenants.

Our suggested strategies start with improving the skills and knowledge of trusted intermediaries. Doctors, social workers, housing workers, community nurses and volunteers can play a central role. Using these frontline professionals to help identify and address energy poverty provides a new, cost-effective and targeted solution.

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