NOT surprisingly, a recent survey conducted by consumer advocacy group Choice found electricity was the number one ‘cost of living’ concern.
For most people already struggling with increased living expenses, slow wage growth and unemployment, skyrocketing electricity prices have been a slap in the face which dealt a major blow to tight household budgets.
While the national debate on how best to reduce energy prices and shift to clean energy is caught up in ideology and political turf wars, the rest of us are left to bear the strain.
In recent polling commissioned by Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), the Property Council and the Energy Efficiency Council found 90 per cent of people around the country want governments to help households and business reduce their energy bills, with 88 per cent supporting investment in energy efficiency measures.
In fact, energy efficiency is the most popular energy policy option currently being discussed by government, and this cuts across all party lines.
Energy efficiency is non-contentious, simple, low cost, quick to implement and can make a big difference, so it’s surprising that governments are not prioritising investment in this area. For example, improving the energy efficiency of a house from a 2 star to 5-star rating can reduce bills up to $600 a year, as well as improve health and wellbeing.
There is strong support for governments, and even energy retailers, to help households save energy, by providing incentives to improve the energy efficiency of homes, strengthen minimum standards for new homes and upgrading public buildings like schools and hospitals. But it’s people on low-incomes or experiencing disadvantage who are in energy stress. They need the greatest support.
Adding solar panels is one measure households can take to lower their bills, but they’re rare on rental properties. (Pic: iStock)
The harsh reality is that people living on low-incomes and disadvantaged households are more likely to live in inefficient homes and have fewer efficient appliances, and as a result have higher energy bills. These houses are like ovens in summer and freezing in winter. Distressingly they can’t afford to implement energy efficiency measures, or if they live in private or community housing, have no control.
Around half of people surviving on low incomes are living in rental properties where they are beholden to landlords. Rental properties have significantly fewer energy efficiency features and rarely solar energy to keep power prices under control. Landlords have little incentive to invest in improving energy efficiency of homes. Many do the bare minimum, even when it’s free.
The poll also found overwhelming support for governments to invest in energy efficiency upgrades for vulnerable households and introduce minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties. Concerns about impacts on rental prices can be dealt with through the right incentive either at the state or federal level through the tax system.
Priority should also be given to upgrading the public and community housing stock, which is essential to improve affordability for some of the most disadvantaged in our community.
We know energy efficiency can have benefits beyond relieving energy stress, including improving health, social inclusion, and better education and economic participation. It will also bring wider benefits to the energy system as it reduces demand and improves energy reliability and security, which will also help bring down prices.
We absolutely should still be looking at how to reduce energy prices and transition quickly to clean energy, but in the meantime, there are simple and meaningful actions that governments can and should do now — like investing in energy efficiency.
This that will make a big difference to households and businesses, especially those struggling the most.
Kellie Caught is a senior adviser for climate and energy with the Australian Council of Social Service.