Complaints About Electricity Not Surprising

Jack de Groot, CEO St Vincent de Paul Society NSW

It comes as no surprise to me and the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW that 74 per cent of complaints to the Energy & Water Ombudsman NSW (EWON) last financial year were about electricity, because our charity has seen a significant escalation in requests for assistance to pay energy bills.

Because of the massive price hikes in July, we have already distributed $1.95 million in energy vouchers in the first quarter of this financial year, compared to $1.3 million in the same period last year. We are anticipating a huge increase by the end of 2017-18, well in excess of last year’s total of $4.5 million, because with a hot summer forecast, fans and aircon usage are set to soar.

Vinnies is the largest distributor of the NSW Government’s Energy Accounts Payment Assistance (EAPA) vouchers and data collected from our members and staff who distribute EAPA vouchers, paints a shocking picture.

We’ve seen an increase in EAPA voucher distribution of more than 50 per cent, so far this financial year, across much of the State, with the highest jump in the Nepean (Penrith) region. In the first quarter of the last financial year our Vinnies EAPA distribution in the Nepean was $36,000 compared to a staggering $121,000 this year. There were also significant increases in the Cumberland (Parramatta) area from $31,000 last year to $61,000 this year and the Prospect (Blacktown) region jumped from $32,000 last year to $60,000 this year.

The figures for the EAPA voucher distribution so far this financial year are a clear indication of how people are struggling to keep up with rising electricity costs. However these figures are also just scratching the surface in terms of the scale of extra assistance we are giving out to people struggling to make ends meet.

Our own research shows that the average electricity market offer increased by 16 per cent to 19 per cent (depending on network area) in July 2017. The best market offers for households with typical consumption levels range between $1,875 and $2,174 depending on the area.

$2,000 per year is an awful lot for people who are doing it tough. We know that energy affordability was the key issue impacting 17 per cent of the households visited by our Conference members last financial year. All indications are that the figure will be much higher this year.

We know that low income households spend three times more on energy, as a proportion of their gross household weekly income, than high income households. This means that any change in electricity prices has a far greater impact on lower income households, forcing many households to make difficult decisions between paying for rent, food or electricity.

This is backed up by data from the Australian Energy Regulator showing that 85,801 households in NSW have a debt for unpaid electricity bills and a further 44,854 households in debt over unpaid gas bills.

The NSW Government needs to make sure that the price of electricity goes down for everyone, and we need to make sure that the most vulnerable get an appropriate discount. It’s time we adopted a 17.5 per cent concession like they have in Victoria.

And while more information for customers is useful, at the end of the day what matters is the price. Even the cheapest offer available on the market is unaffordable for many people in the community. What’s the point of choice if you can only choose between outrageously expensive, very expensive, and mildly unaffordable?

Rising electricity and gas prices are hurting those most vulnerable in our community. This is what our members, volunteers, and staff are seeing every day across the state as we assist people to pay their bills and buy food. Governments must take action – resolution of this crisis rests with them.

Published in Western Sydney Fairfax newspapers.