Aboriginal Households Face Uphill Battle to Pay Energy Bills

Many low-income households will struggle to stay warm this winter as soaring energy prices take their toll. But research by energy specialists has found that an accumulation of factors mean Aboriginal households are particularly vulnerable to the winter chill.

A three-year investigation called the Koorie Energy Efficiency Project (KEEP) has blamed a trifecta of raw service costs, a lack of awareness around energy efficiency, and “energy hungry” housing stock for the uphill battle confronting many Aboriginal people trying to haul back their energy bills.

The upshot is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders experience a distinct disadvantage compared to other groups – indeed, “compared with the rest of Australia, really”, says the head of the project, Swinburne University researcher Dr Rowan Bedggood.

Many of the households were using energy hungry appliances that generated bills that few households could afford, let alone those from low socio-economic backgrounds, according to Bedggood.

“Some [Aboriginal] people had an electricity bill that was three, four or five thousand dollars. You can imagine with a household that’s already struggling financially and already on a very low income, that’s just impossible to pay,” she says.

“Some households didn’t have heating so they’d use plug-in heaters like blow heaters, not realising how much energy they consume, some didn’t have central air-conditioning and might have had four or five air conditioners in each of the rooms so they would put them on and not realise,” Bedggood says.

Lack of knowledge is not a uniquely Aboriginal problem as many households across Victoria are unaware of the simple steps they can take to improve their energy efficiency. However, Aboriginal households are at a distinct disadvantage because they are often not able to access the support networks that can assist them to pay their bills.

Energy retailers rarely reached out to these households for support. In fact, they often seemed resistant to helping them, Bedggood says.

“One of the stories we did hear in the project was that the householder would contact the retailer and usually go to a call centre, and that retailer was invariably not helpful or even resistant as soon as they found out the person was Aboriginal,” she says.

TheKEEP project  assisted 4,500 low-income Aboriginal households around Victoria, providing a range of energy efficiency initiatives- including home visits where householders were given a number of energy saving tips and advice, and the installation of major/minor retrofits and in-home energy use displays.

Aboriginal Community Development Officers, who visited these homes to provide energy saving strategies, would often play a secondary role as an advocate for householders with energy retailers.

“Our workers in our project would go to the household to help walk them through their bill and give them energy tips to help reduce their next bill,” Bedggood says.

“But a lot of their work was advocacy, they’d get on the phone on the householder’s behalf to the retailers and sometimes they’d be on the phone for up to two hours and they had to go into battle almost sometimes with whoever they were on the phone with to get the support that the household was entitled to,” according to Bedggood.

While energy retailers are regulated to provide support to those experiencing hardship, they are proactive in doing so.

“To get on a concession plan or payment plan, for example, you have to realise that those offers are available. Now I suppose these things are available on companies’ websites, but a lot of the people that were in our study didn’t have a computer or access to the internet.”

The longitudinal study overseen by Bedggood was one of 20 projects funded under the Federal Government’s $55 million Low Income Energy Efficiency Program (LIEEP) delivered to 32,000 households across the country.

It also found that poor housing stock is making it even harder for Aboriginal people to reduce their energy consumption.

“These challenges were coupled with them being in housing, most of it social support housing, where frankly you may as well have been living in a tent,” Bedggood says.

“They weren’t insulated, they weren’t upgraded, they had fixed appliances that were energy hungry, not energy efficient,” she says.

This issue was also identified by Dr Philippa Watson of the University of Tasmania in another parallel project called Get Bill Smart.

“We just have terrible housing stock in Australia really from what I understand compared to European standards,” says Watson

It’s a historic problem, according to Watson, as the Government tried to “build housing for everyone,” favouring quantity over “thick walls”.

Bedggood agrees that poorly built housing stock is an issue throughout Australia, but argues that the conditions in which many Aboriginal people are living often fall into the extreme end of the frame.

“One house didn’t have a back-door and some had no window coverings. You can imagine trying to keep them warm in winter or cool in summer,” she says.

“There was one home that my research team visited to do a follow-up interview and it had no light bulbs so when it became dark they went to bed or had candles. There were wires hanging out of the wall where electricity sockets used to be,” according to Bedggood.

“We designed the program with our Aboriginal partners to deliver outcomes for the Aboriginal people,” she says.

Bedggood says a “targeted effort” to assist the Aboriginal population is possible given that they represent about 3% of the Australian population.

She proposes creating Aboriginal call centres so that Aboriginal households can ring an energy line and receive appropriate assistance over the phone.

Whatever the Government does to tackle the issue, Aboriginal input is critical, Bedggood says.

“We’re coming up with ideas that may or may not work, but the main thing is if that discussion is held with Aboriginal people sitting at the table, then we might have a really good outcome,” she says.

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