Power Struggles: everyday battles to stay connected

Emma O’Neill, Policy Advisor, VCOSS

It seems there’s a new idea for energy policy every day. Politicians are scrambling to keep the lights on and deliver clean power, at a price we can all afford.

We need leadership and level-headed solutions to guide us through the energy transition. Because behind the power plays are real-life people struggling to afford the energy they need to feed their families, keep warm, and stay healthy.

Just last month, VCOSS released a new report called Power Struggles that tells the stories of 10 Victorian households who are making heartbreaking sacrifices just to stay connected to power. The interviews were conducted by Dr Larissa Nicholls from RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research.

Power Struggles tells the stories of people like:

  • Rachel, who showers at a local charity because she can’t afford a gas connection
  • Tess, who relies on food vouchers to save money for her utility bills
  • Don, who doesn’t use heating and goes to bed early if it’s cold
  • Nola, whose family never uses heating or cooling, and
  • Lanfen, who doesn’t have the English skills needed to negotiate a better power deal.

Five key themes emerged from people’s stories:

  1. Vulnerability of sole-adult and sole-parent households—limited income support made it difficult to afford bill payments.
  2. Lack of access to affordable energy-efficient housing—housing conditions made it difficult to meet essential energy needs and mange bills.
  3. Interconnection between health and energy consumption—almost all people interviewed had health issues that increased their use of heating and/or cooling, or would have benefited from more energy use.
  4. Making trade-offs to keep energy bills paid—including restricting heating and cooling, limiting cooking and food purchases, and not being able to afford children’s school books.
  5. Energy sector not facilitating trust and engagement—people expressed feelings of frustration, anger, disadvantage and/or powerlessness as energy consumers.
  6. Households’ vulnerability to financial shocks—people had few financial ‘shock absorbers’ and often relied on formal or informal credit from family and friends, and assistance from community organisations.

The interviews show the broader financial pressures faced by low-income households, and how energy hardship spills over into other areas of family life. We hope the stories can help the advocacy of financial counsellors, consumer advocates and other professionals who work to reduce financial hardship and vulnerability.

Building on previous recommendations, VCOSS details 13 ways the federal or state government can help cash-strapped Victorians, including:

  • boosting the Utility Relief Grant (URG)
  • mandating minimum standards for rental properties and expanding energy-efficiency retrofits of social housing
  • reviewing the adequacy of the Medical Cooling Concession
  • improving energy price transparency, including through the introduction of energy comparison rates
  • introducing an independent, government-funded energy broker to find the best deals for households, and
  • retaining universal access to emergency relief and financial counselling services in the face of proposed federal government eligibility restrictions.

The recent report on Victoria’s energy retail markets includes some strong recommendations that could make a real difference to people, like requiring power companies to market their offers in dollar terms rather than confusing discount percentages, and making energy contracts fairer and better value.

But we are still awaiting action on other policy recommendations. In the meantime, the household budgets of thousands of Victorians hang in the balance.

VCOSS’s Power Struggles report can be found at: http://vcoss.org.au/documents/2017/08/POWER-STRUGGLES-2017.pdf

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