More on energy prices

I’ve promised myself not to write much on access to energy and water, because it’s what I do all day at work and, if you can excuse the pun, can get very dry. But I’ll let this one through.

My piece in the latest South Sydney Herald, below. Being a monthly newspaper, this story is a bit behind the news cycle. But hopefully this article will assist people in finding help, if they need it.

Regulated electricity prices are set to soar over the next three years, leading to increased payment difficulty and hardship for many households. Assistance measures have been announced by the NSW Government, but this will not cover all of the bill increases faced by vulnerable households.

The Independent Regulatory and Pricing Tribunal (IPART) has confirmed that an average Sydney household can expect to pay an extra $670 per year. Although some Sydney-siders may not notice an increase of this size, it will be a significant increase for many low-income households or for those who are struggling to keep up with rising mortgage or rent payments.

Affordable energy is key to ensuring that households are not disconnected from supply due to an inability to pay. Disconnection leaves no means of cooking and cleaning, and makes young children and families vulnerable. Put simply, the NSW Government has a responsibility to ensure that the lights stay on. If the Government is to accept IPART’s recommendations, then it must implement alternate programs to ensure that electricity remains affordable.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), along with other community representatives, has been agitating for an extension of the Energy Rebate to all Commonwealth Health Care Card holders. This would see an end to the policy that, whilst benefiting pensioners, excluded many who rely on lower incomes, including Newstart recipients, single parents, low-income card holders and young people who are studying.

In response to the IPART announcement about rising bills the Minister for Energy, John Robertson, has announced that the Energy Rebate will be expanded to all Commonwealth Health Care Card holders and this will make a big difference to the most vulnerable households. The Minister also announced that the rebate would be indexed to energy price rises.

Whilst these measures will provide much needed assistance, many households will still feel the pinch of rising bills. The Government must also allocate the funds promised mid-2009 for financial counselling. Financial counselling is an effective way for many people to learn how to manage their money and to help pay bills, but waiting times for appointments can run over weeks and the sector is grossly under-funded. This money can no longer be delayed and must be put where it is useful – in community and welfare organisations providing services to the community.

The NSW Government, in concert with certain sections of the media, have laid unfair blame for the price rises on the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. This policy contributes around a quarter of the bill increases, however the Commonwealth Government has promised a package that would compensation for 110% of these cost for low-income households through changes to benefits and payments, whilst also including assistance for middle-income households through the tax system.

The rest of the increases are made up of a variety of factors, most significantly increased expenditure on electricity poles and wires due to increased peak demand. Also contributing are other climate policies such as the Renewable Energy Target, for which there is no assistance for low-income households.

Anyone struggling to pay their energy bills should first contact their retailer, which has an obligation to assist households experiencing hardship. Many community organisations also distribute Energy Accounts Payment Assistance (EAPA) vouchers, and may be able to help with tips for reducing energy use.

Joel Pringle is a Policy Officer with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, working in the Energy and Water Consumers’ Advocacy Program.

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