As energy prices rise and temperatures drop, RMIT researchers note that one in four Australian households are struggling to pay their power bills. Despite this, many are missing out on welfare benefits because their circumstances do not fit within assistance programs, a phenomenon known as “hidden energy poverty”.
A new study, published in Energy Research & Social Science, has highlighted the different forms of hidden energy poverty. These range from underconsumption of heating or cooling to avoid energy disconnection, to missing out on energy concessions because a household’s income is just above the welfare threshold.
Front-line workers ideally placed
The researchers also provide some novel recommendations for addressing the issue. This includes using trusted intermediaries, such as people working in health, energy and social services to identify and support such households.
The research project found, for example, that people who provide social services are ideally placed to help, but often don’t have the right technical information and contacts.
“Those healthcare assessors, the care workers, they notice people who’ve got problems,” says Dr Nicola Willand, Senior Lecturer, School of Property, Construction and Project Management, RMIT University. “When it’s too hot and they’re still don’t want to put on the air conditioning, or it’s too cold. But they never knew who to reach out to.”
One of the recommendations is for front-line staff to connect at-risk householders via energy counsellors. These counsellors could help those enduring hidden energy poverty to access better energy contracts, concessions, home retrofits and appliance upgrade programs.
Dr Willand also says that it would help to build the capacity of the technical workforce.
“We found that people who can do an energy audit of the home are very much trained in the technology but not in the people skills,” she says. “They’re in the home too, and they can see something and they’re walking around and taking note of all the technical material features of the home. And by doing that, they’re also building trust.
“So, we thought, ‘Isn’t there an opportunity if you’re in there already, just to see if these people need help?’ It can be simple things like guiding households on how to use their heaters or cooling systems efficiently, how to use their washing machines if they have got solar PV, or providing advice on energy contracts.”
A new job for HVAC&R
As well as energy assessors, Dr Willand says that those in the HVAC&R industry have a role to play.
“Technicians can be aware of the signs of energy vulnerability,” she says. “Cold homes [are affected] but also offices and shops – small businesses are also often struggling, so being aware of that.
“Then listening and identifying need and vulnerability. So, if they’re going into house where there are people with chronic illnesses, people with disability, very young children, older people, looking at the heating or the cooling and whether it actually has the capacity to heat the room. Technicians are ideally placed for that.”
Dr Willand says technicians can also provide advice, on everything from closing vents for evaporative coolers during winter, to the importance of cleaning filters, and the different energy upgrade incentives that may be available.
Some of this, Dr Willand says, would benefit from a wider industry response.
“When it comes to the technicians, we need to build capacity there,” she says. “So, [it’s important to] inform them about energy vulnerability and the health risks, how to identify it and how to refer people to help. There may be flyers that could be produced, or webinars.”
Another role for industry could be supporting intersectoral collaborations between health workers and local technicians.
“Just building those connections would help,” says Dr Willand, “because at the moment we don’t have a central helpline. You have it for all kinds of stuff, from quitting smoking to domestic violence. But we don’t have it around energy poverty.
Collecting information about the extent of energy poverty – so it is no longer hidden – is also important, according to Dr Willand. She says in the recent study, some of the workers they spoke to reported regularly seeing evidence of energy vulnerability and were distressed because they didn’t know how to help.
“It may very well be that HVAC&R technicians on the ground are already seeing it, and may even be helping in other ways,” she says. “It would be really interesting to what extent that is already happening and what seems to be working.”
Beyond that, Dr Willand also says that industry can play a part advocating for higher rental standards, and continuous funding for retrofits of existing homes and buildings.
Read more about the issue of hidden energy poverty and the recommendations for addressing it at The Conversation.