EnergyAustralia, one of the country’s leading energy retailers, today announced it would commit an additional $10 million to financial and other support for some of its most vulnerable customers at a time of rising electricity and gas prices.
The funding will be used to expand the existing EnergyAustralia hardship program, available to eligible electricity and gas customers in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. It will also go towards doing new research aimed at alleviating chronic, long-term financial hardship.
“When electricity prices reach record highs and the lights go out it is very hard to argue that the energy system is working as intended, in the interests of families and businesses,” said EnergyAustralia Managing Director Catherine Tanna. “I would love to be proved wrong but we see no sign that pressure on retail energy prices is about to ease. We need to be prepared to help people get through some difficult times.”
Electricity bills have increased across the country, with recent rises reflecting the impact of higher wholesale costs (the cost of buying electricity on behalf of customers) following the closure of large coal-fired power stations, increased demand for gas by LNG projects in Queensland and reliability issues with some big generators.
However, Ms Tanna cautioned that EnergyAustralia’s hardship commitment was not the answer to rising electricity costs: “The truth is, it’s only one part of a much broader response required from all parts of the energy industry and from governments,” she said.
“Success in energy policy means delivering three things: reliable, affordable and cleaner energy for everyone in Australia. When one of those things is given priority over the others you get the situation we have right now: volatile markets, problems with the security of supply and rising prices,” Ms Tanna said.
According to a recent report1 published by Kildonan Uniting Care, EnergyAustralia’s hardship program partner, a growing number of “middle class” Australians are struggling to pay their bills. The report noted about 18% of people supported by Kildonan received some kind of wage in 2016, up from 11% the year before. The community services group said this reflected a rise in the numbers of “working poor”.
It was critical for EnergyAustralia and other companies to continue investing in new supplies of cleaner energy and for industry and government to continue to work toward a stable, national energy policy, Ms Tanna said.
Ms Tanna said EnergyAustralia had begun consulting social services groups on how to best apply the additional funds, with an emphasis on energy efficiency and measures that provide lasting, long-term relief. The existing EnergyAustralia hardship program already provides appliance swaps, energy audits, payment matching and debt waivers; a portion of the additional funding could be applied relatively quickly to expanding these works.
The funding will also support initiatives arising from the EnergyAustralia Financial Inclusion Action Plan, a program led by Good Shepherd Microfinance and supported by the federal government. FIAP commitments include support for people impacted by domestic violence and training to help EnergyAustralia contact centre agents to identify hardship signals.
EnergyAustralia has already exempted all hardship and concession customers from late fees, so if they miss a payment they’re not penalised. And the company does not charge these customers for paper bills or pass-on additional fees for settling accounts via credit card.
Customers experiencing difficulty with their electricity bills are encouraged to contact EnergyAustralia www.energyaustralia.com.au
1Kildonan UnitingCare, “CareRing Report”, 1 January – 31 December 2015, https://www.kildonan.org.au/assets/Uploads/CareRingReport-July-2016-Condensed.pdf