Energy inequities in social housing: negotiating the ‘new normal’

By Gordon Waitt and Theresa Harada, University of Wollongong Australia

Australians no longer access affordable domestic energy supplies. Indeed, energy prices are skyrocketing. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2017), the retail price of electricity across Australia’s capital cities increased by 83% between 2008 and 2013. Australians now live with amongst the highest household electricity prices in the OECD (OECD Library, 2017).

Last year, the Independent Australian Think Tank ‘The Grattan Institute’ released a report recommending that politicians come to terms with the need to inform the Australian public of ‘the harsh truth’ that higher wholesale electricity prices are the ‘new normal’ (2018). The energy landscape changed through the intersection of deregulation, the decommissioning of coal-fuelled power stations in South Australia and Victoria, and policy uncertainty around renewable energies due to the dismantling of carbon price and reductions of the Renewable Energy Target (RET). In Australia, the current transition from fossil fuels to renewables has failed to provide access to energy that is affordable, clean and reliable. Consequently, one report estimates that there are over 3 million Australians, including over 731,00 children, are energy insecure; that is, they are no longer able to meet basic household energy needs (ACOSS, BSL and TCI 2017). A KPMG (2016) study reported that in 2015/2016 around 160,000 households were disconnected for non-payment of their electricity or gas bill, almost a 47% increase since 2009/10. Such energy inequality statistics are alarming.

The most disadvantaged people in Australian society are more likely to struggle to pay domestic fuel bills and access an essential service. Those households most likely to be energy insecure include those living in poverty while in paid work, where someone has a medical condition or disability, those living on unemployment allowances, alongside pensioners, renters, pensioners, and single-parent families. Wide-ranging social injustices are being generated between households in terms of who can access and afford the energy market.

In Australia, domestic energy inequity is further exacerbated by policy that has prioritised distributed energy (solar PV) to transition households to affordable, clean and reliable domestic energy future, without careful consideration of housing tenure or household income.  For example, Australian Commonwealth and State policy has encouraged through subsidies and generous tariff rates the update of roof-top solar polar amongst Australian households to generate a more diversified and decentralised energy grid. The Energy Networks Australia and CSIRO (2017) predict that by 2027, some 40% of household energy will be produced by distributed energy resources, with the likely fall in costs of battery storage and solar panels. However, not all households can access the incentives to support the uptake of solar polar because of household income or housing tenure. Unintentionally, energy inequality and insecurity is widening between socio-economic advantaged and disadvantaged groups through policies designed to work towards future energy efficiency and sustainability.  

Our article published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers builds upon literature that advocates for low-income and disadvantaged households by clearly spelling out how energy is critical to wellbeing. Our focus is on pensioners living in social housing. We introduce the concept of ‘spaces of energy wellbeing’ to illustrate how the increasing price of electricity ‘hurts’ disadvantaged households through the rationing of their domestic energy use. This concept is employed to bring to the fore what seems to be often overlooked in energy policy debates; that affordable electricity is essential to making and remaking of a place to call home. Examples of social housing tenants’ ‘energy life hacks’ are offered to illustrate not only the importance of a place to call home in the lives of social housing tenants, but how the ‘new normal’ of making home for those living in energy inefficient housing often involves cutting out electricity or gas all together.

We combined semi-structured interviews with energy diaries to encourage reflection on everyday energy experiences (see the feature image above for an example). These energy diary entries illustrate some of the most frequently discussed energy life hacks shared by social housing tenants who consented to participate. Listed, these include:

  1. Heating and cooling. Do not use heating or cooling appliances. Wear coats, gloves, scarves, hats, socks, beanies and balaclavas indoors. Use blankets and hot water bottles. Go to bed. Go to shopping centres to keep warm. Go to visit friends who have warm houses. Keep warm by cleaning. Chase the sun-sit outdoors if sunny.
  2. Cooking. Do not use oven or cooktop. Use one pot microwave cooking techniques only. Eat fewer meals. Drink tea and coffee to reduce hunger.
  3. Hot water. Turn off hot water service. Use kettle for washing up. Take cold showers or turn on water heater just before showering. Shower less. Wash clothing in cold water.
  4. Lighting. Sit in the dark. Rely on exterior street lighting. Go to bed early. Read in the daylight hours.


Maggie, 58 years old, two diary entries (see the feature image for the 1st entry) detailing the dilemma of energy affordability from project about domestic energy use in social housing, Sydney, 2018.

Through social housing tenants rationing energy, they manage their energy bills so they can stay in their homes. However, rationing energy use is to the detriment of their health and wellbeing. For example, often their homes were well below the WHO recommended indoor temperature ranges for good health for people over 65 years of age. Television was often their only form of sociality; providing a level of social connectivity, an awareness of current events, and a topic of conversation. Yet, television could be bitter-sweet. Some lamented the fact that the popular cooking programs sometimes made them feel angry that they could not live like ‘normal’ people because they could not afford to buy or cook the foods that they wanted. Evidence is provided of the essential nature of domestic energy in maintaining dignity and self-worth through the capacity to cook meals, shower and socialise.

By offering the notion of ‘spaces of energy wellbeing’ our article points to the failing of the current market-driven electricity sector through how skyrocketing energy prices operate in the making and unmaking of home. Energy policy stakeholders and makers must understand how domestic energy is essential to a place to call home, that is intimately tied to understandings of self, family and friends. A spaces of wellbeing framework demands that new policies and markets need to be considered to address the challenge of transitioning to clean energy supply, while maintaining universal access to affordable energy.

Consequently, to purse an equitable and inclusive energy transition requires not only retaining an energy grid that supplies low-cost renewable energy but higher levels of policy support for disadvantaged and low-income households that provides income support. To address the health and wellbeing outcomes for social housing tenants in energy efficient housing requires careful consideration of policy response to changing energy costs including, targeted energy concessions, access to energy efficient housing through the introduction of minimum energy building standards for rental accommodation, co-funding with housing agencies of  the installation of energy-efficient technologies (water tanks, refrigerators, reverse cycle air conditioners) and installation of solar PV.   

About the authors: Gordon Waitt is a Professor at the University of Wollongong and Dr Therersa Harada is a Research Associate at the same institution.

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2017) Cat No. 6401.0 Consumer Price Index, Australia, Mar 2017, available at https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/6401.0Feature+Article2Mar+2017

Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL), and Climate Institute (TCI) (2017) Empowering disadvantaged households to access affordable, clean energy, available at  https://www.acoss.org.au/wpcontent/uploads/2017/07/ACOSS_BSL_TCI_Empowering-households.pdf

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) (2018) Housing assistance in Australia https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/housing-assistance/housing-assistance-in-australia-2018/contents/social-housing-dwellings date of access 29/05/2018

Energy Networks Australia and CSIRO (2017) Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap: Final Report, https://www.energynetworks.com.au/sites/default/files/entr_final_report_april_2017.pdf [date of access 3/06/2019]

KPMG (2016) Quantifying the cost of customers experiencing difficulties in paying energy bills’, Energy Consumers Australia, November, 2016, https://energyconsumersaustralia.com.au/wp-content/uploads/KPMG-ECA_Estimating_costs_associated_with_payment_difficulties_and_disconnections_October_2016.pdf.pdf

The Grattan Institute (2018) Mostly working: Australia’s wholesale electricity market https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/905-Mostly-working.pdf

Liberal Government (2019) Lower Power Prices https://www.liberal.org.au/our-plan/energy

OECD Library. Energy Prices and Taxes, Volume 2017 Issue 3 Third Quarter 2017. Paris: OECD. Available online at: http://www.oecd.org/publications/energy-prices-and-taxes-16096835.htm

Waitt, G, Harada, T. Space of energy well‐being: Social housing tenants’ everyday experiences of fuel poverty. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2019; 00: 1– 14. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12320

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