Energy poverty trying to pay the bills


People are placing their health at risk by turning off heating in winter because they can’t afford the cost.

Tracey Radbourne never worried too much about the cost of electricity at home. Sure, it was expensive but she owned a hairdressing salon and spent long hours at work.

But then she suffered a stroke and at the age of 53, is now on a pension. All of a sudden, the cost of electricity at home is a real issue.

“It’s always increasing, it stretches your ability to pay for everything, and it’s a very calculated existence,” Tracey said.

This winter, Tracey didn’t use the gas heater and kept electric heaters on low in rooms she was using. Her gas and electricity usage went down, but her energy bills still went up.

“It was $480 this year for the second quarter, and last year it was about $420,” she said. “It’s a lot. I’ve started shopping at a food bank so I can save at least $40 per week on food.”

Tracey is not alone. The ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) estimates that up to 40 per cent of Australian households – those that earn 90-thousand dollars or less – are struggling with energy costs.

The peak community advocacy group has done its own research which has found households are going without essentials such as food and car registration to pay for energy bills.

Susan Helyar, ACTCOSS director, says there are others who are choosing another option.

“Instead of waiting and getting a bill they can’t afford, they actually just turn their energy off,” she said.

Last year, CHOICE reported that since 2014, electricity had been the most significant financial worry for more than 80 per cent of Australian households, and that concern was felt equally across high and low-income tax groups.

Research by comparison website found that 70 per cent of Australians are actively taking measures to reduce their energy bills.

Those measures include reducing energy usage, asking energy providers for better deals, switching providers, and cutting down on living expenses such as groceries.

The critical finding was that current electricity prices are not sustainable for many Australians’ costs of living.

Susan Helyar from ACTCOSS says her organisation is seeing more people in this category.

“It (the cost of electricity) actually displaces other essential costs of living like food. We’ve seen a significant and ongoing increase in demand for emergency services. They’re the places you can go and get food at no cost.”

Australia’s largest food bank organisation, Food Bank, conducted two separate surveys to gather information from charities and community groups that provide front-line food relief, and responses from agencies that interact with Australians who have experienced food insecurity.

In its 2017 report, 3.6 million Australians reported not having enough food for themselves or their families at some point in the previous 12 months.

Three-out-of-five individuals in this group had experienced this on a monthly basis even though 48 per cent of food-insecure individuals had employment. For all those people, large utility bills were identified as the leading cause of food insecurity.

In 2017, then-Treasurer Scott Morrison directed the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to conduct an inquiry into the competitiveness of retail electricity prices, following a series of parliamentary inquiries to gather information about how households were coping with energy costs.

The report released this year revealed electricity has risen by 63 per cent over the past decade.

Carmel Franklin, CEO of Care Financial Counselling Service, said the financial support sector has seen a significant increase in people seeking support for living expenses and in particular, energy debts.

“It’s almost rare to have electricity as one of the issues clients would not talk about,” Ms Franklin said.

According to the Australian Energy Regulator, ACT energy customers on hardship programs during 2016-17, had an average electricity debt of $1545 and gas debt of $2157. Those not on hardship programs had an average electricity debt of $776 and $623 for gas.

“This year there was a big increase in electricity prices and that sparked quite a lot of concern for people about how they were going to manage big winter bills,” Ms Franklin said.

Susan Helyar and Carmel Franklin meet often as the heads of two organisations that work to support the needs of Canberra’s most vulnerable people. Energy prices are usually high on the agenda, particularly in a city that relies so much on heating during the long winter months.

“People who aren’t in hardship are actually in difficulty with their health because they can’t afford the electricity bills,” Ms Franklin said.

Ms Helyar says ACTCOSS expects to see a rise in the trend of people risking their health in effort to lower their electricity costs.

“I’ve had enough health problems, I don’t need anymore, and you get sick going from cold to warm and warm to cold,” she said.

“I’m in contact [with friends and support networks], and I’ll turn to them first before turning off my heating.”