The Energy Challenges for Vulnerable Households

The Energy Challenges for Vulnerable Households stream at MEFL’s Spark! 2018 Conference provided a glimpse of the difficulties faced by vulnerable households and explored some of the solutions that can help alleviate these issues.

The stream featured the expertise of:

  • Lynne Gallagher, Director of Research at Energy Consumers Australia
  • Emma O’Neill, Energy Policy Adviser at the Victorian Council of Social Service
  • Jason Cox, Project Lead of the Energy Smart project at MEFL
  • Facilitator Andrew Hewlett, MEFL board member

Lynne Gallagher began by highlighting how vulnerability is a very diverse experience which can differ significantly amongst households. She emphasised that any programs addressing the issue must understand how people live and engage with them in a way that best suits them. For instance, older Australians prefer face-to-face engagement while younger generations can be engaged through new technologies such as gamification.

She also highlighted that despite there being a belief that low income people do not engage with their bills and this was a core reason for them paying high tariffs, she stated that in fact, studies show that low income households are actually very active in managing their bills. They just don’t have the knowledge, tools or resources to learn how to read their energy bills.

Emma O’Neill from the Victorian Council of Social Service also echoed just how diverse the experience of vulnerability can be. She highlighted that some of the sources of energy vulnerability included:

  • Low income households
  • Single incomes
  • Public and private renters
  • Limited English literacy

However, she stated that it can be difficult to identify vulnerable segments as vulnerability can often affect segments that may not traditionally considered to be vulnerable and may only experience a sudden onset of vulnerability. For instance, families with mortgages, living on the urban fringe and family violence victims.

She also highlighted the widespread nature of energy poverty. Nearly a quarter of Victorians struggle to pay bills on time and the average statistics gloss over the real struggles that people face. Some examples she gave of the sacrifices people regularly make include:

  • Limiting cooking time
  • Fewer baths for children
  • Buying less fresh food
  • Bathing in local charity
  • Going to bed early (especially for older people)
  • Limited social interactions

Finally, Jason Cox illustrated how despite wonderful technological innovations, without targeted policies and programs, low income households are unlikely to benefit from this new technology.

He also explored some of the common reasons why people are reluctant to change energy retailers including:

  • They trust their company
  • Think the bigger company is better
  • Think big company leads to a better price
  • Think they are getting a good price
  • Reluctance to negotiate

He echoed Lynne by highlighting that it was important to respond personally to each individual person and it was important that low income households were empowered to negotiate their energy tariffs and understand the importance of regularly reviewing energy tariffs.

Thank you to our speakers for sharing their expertise. For more information on the other streams at Spark! please visit MEFL’s Spark! 2018 page.