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One in five Australians lack ‘basic’ electricity protections against issues such as disconnections during heatwaves

Remote and Indigenous communities disproportionately energy insecure, with inequities to become more apparent due to climate change, study co-author says

One in five Australians live in areas that lack “basic” consumer electricity protections, new research has found. These include rules against disconnecting customers on life support or during periods of extreme hot or cold temperatures.

Remote and Indigenous communities are disproportionately energy insecure, with Indigenous communities 15% more likely to not have access to any of the five consumer protections studied. Most Australians living in the eastern states are covered by the national energy customer framework, a set of rules that include these protections.

“Many of these inequities will only become more apparent because of climate change,” said Michael Klerck, a study co-author from the Tangentyere Research Hub. “There needs to be a clear-eyed focus on reducing, or at least not entrenching, existing inequalities.”

The researchers looked at five categories of legal protections – disconnection protections for customers with life support equipment (medical equipment that requires electricity) who can’t pay their bills, rules for unplanned interruptions (guaranteed service levels), mandatory reporting of when electricity is disconnected, a clear and independent complaint process, and clear guidelines for rooftop solar connections.

The researchers looked at hundreds of documents from more than 3,000 communities around Australia. You can explore them in the graphic below:

New South Wales had the largest number of communities who are fully covered by these protections. The Northern Territory and Western Australia had the fewest. Remote communities were 18% more likely than those in urban areas to receive fewer than four of the protections studied.

Compared with remote settlements that are not Indigenous, Indigenous communities were 61% less likely to have life support protections, 46% less likely to have guaranteed service and 63% less likely to have mandatory reporting of electricity disconnections, the research found.

Previous research found that more than 90% of households in some NT communities had their electricity disconnected at least once in 2018-19 for non-payment. And almost three-quarters of households were disconnected more than 10 times over the period. Many live in communities where electricity is pre-paid and these disconnections are not reported, making it hard to track the extent of the problem.

“Electricity is vital to many aspects of wellbeing, including keeping homes safe and comfortable and keeping foods and vital medicines, such as insulin, refrigerated,” said Dr Lee White, a researcher at the Australian National University and the lead author of the paper.

“There is room to improve electricity protections for all Australians, especially those who have long been underserved because of regulatory difference.”

States and territories are responsible for regulating electricity in Australia, which has resulted in a patchwork of rules. All mainland states and territories except for WA and the NT are part of the national electricity market. The national energy customer framework provides uniform rules for customers connected to the market.

But parts of northern Queensland and South Australia are not connected to the market and so have different regulations. In WA and the NT there are some interconnected networks around cities that do have a lot of protections, but there often aren’t uniform protections in more isolated areas.

Within the two states there are “three different types of electricity regulatory system, not geographically contiguous, [that] evolved over time, through various degrees of isolated networks, with varying degrees of consumer protections and local codes”, according to White.

The lack of consistent rules on things like connecting solar panels can also entrench inequalities. Just two of the more than 600 settlements with pre-pay electricity have clearly outlined processes to connect rooftop solar. For some, connecting rooftop solar may mean they have to go entirely off-grid.

“Remote communities whose lands are well-positioned to adopt the resources and infrastructures necessary to drive the clean energy transition are in many cases likely the same communities that have their own energy needs neglected under current regulation,” White said.

“In Australia, disparities in electricity regulation will see remote and Indigenous communities approaching the clean energy transition from an uneven footing unless governments and regulators enact meaningful policy reforms.”

The researchers are calling for a national database to monitor and measure energy protections across the country.

Notes and methods:

  • Communities have been counted as not protected if either pre- or post-paid customers are not protected.

  • Communities where either pre- or post-paid customers are protected and the other is prohibited have been counted as protected.


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