The popularity of moveable dwellings as retirement-style housing could result in unnecessary deaths among the elderly during extreme heatwaves, the National Energy Efficiency Conference heard last week.
Tenants Union of Victoria chief executive Mark O’Brien, who spoke on the Efficiency for Vulnerable Households panel, said these dwellings have grown in number because they are a cost-effective alternative to mainstream retirement living.
“The thermal quality of the dwellings is rubbish, but we are in the process as a community of a whole generation of older people moving into that as their retirement living,” Mr O’Brien said. “That is a terrible outcome… I think there will be a lot of unintended consequences from that, including an increase in unnecessary deaths during extreme heatwaves.”
Damian Sullivan, senior manager, equity in response to climate change at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, said more energy efficiency support was needed for the lowest income households, who spend more of their income on energy than other households.
“We know that indicators of hardship such as disconnection for Victoria is increasing quite significantly and inefficient homes contribute to this,” he said.
“They result in higher than necessary energy expenditure, they decrease energy affordability, they are often uncomfortable and they also have associated health issues.”
The Brotherhood has been researching fuel poverty and energy hardship in Australia and has formulated various definitions of fuel poverty including:
- high energy expenditure relative to income
- people who report they can’t heat or cool their homes
- people who report they can’t pay their energy bills
“They are likely to be those people who are restricting their consumption to the detriment of their health and wellbeing,” Mr Sullivan said.
“We found is there is very limited cross-over between those groups of people. The people facing different types of hardship are quite different in those different groups. The interventions need to address all those different groups or different forms of hardships, so if we choose one approach we won’t necessarily capture them all.”
People who are particularly vulnerable to fuel poverty include those with a disability or special medical needs, single parents, single person households and renters.
Mr O’Brien said there were about 2.3 million renting households in Australia and more than half were spending more than a third of their income in energy costs.
“Climate changes and price signals will have a disproportionate effect on renters,” he said. “Intervention in the rental market needs to be broad based.”
The reluctance of landlords to allow tenants to make changes to properties was hindering the ability of tenants to adapt, Mr Obrien said, citing the “irrational” response from landlords to the showerhead replacement scheme in Victoria.
“The water companies themselves were shocked that even when they provided the new showerhead at no cost to anybody, they still had tenants fronting up all the time saying, ‘My landlord says I can’t do it.’ I know at least one water company that said, ‘We’re not even going to ask you anymore if you have got the landlord’s permission because we just want you to have it.’”
Minimum standards needed
This is one example of why voluntary incentive schemes always fail in the rental market, according to Mr O’Brien.
“You actually need minimum standards in the rental market if you are going to address the failure in energy efficiency,” he said. “We are talking about minimum standards to give a reasonable benefit to low income and vulnerable households and to minimise the cost effect to the landlord.”
The standards do not need to be ambitious – ceiling insulation, no gaps and drafts, and an energy-efficient hot water system.
“They would give the biggest bang for the buck,” Mr O’Brien said. “Go and set some minimum standards, allow a long time for people to comply, then impose penalties after that for non-compliance.”
Helen Sofele, principal policy officer for the Victorian Department for Economic Development, Jobs, Transport & Resources, said the government’s Energy Efficiency and Productivity Statement released in June points out energy efficient homes not only provide vulnerable households with bill savings, they improve health and safety.
“Energy efficiency is a key option to contribute to financial stability to help Victorians avoid falling into financial hardship,” Ms Sofele said.
She said energy retailer hardship program participation increased more than 40 per cent over the past five years to more than 33,000 customers in 2013-14. Over the same period, energy supply disconnections increased by a massive 144 per cent for customers that were previously in financial hardship programs. Reliance on energy concessions in Victoria is also rising. In 2014-15, 909,000 households received electricity mains concessions and 609,000 households received mains gas concessions.
“Since energy is an essential service, rationing consumption can lead to a low quality of life and wellbeing,” she said. “Health can suffer and, at worse, if you see disconnections when people can’t pay, it creates social and economic isolation.”
According to Ms Sofele, one of the biggest barriers to addressing energy efficiency is finding and engaging with households. Financing is important because of the scale of the problem.
“With the limited amount of funding available you have a threshold decision whether to help more [households] through lighter or shallower retrofits or assistance, or to provide more help, say through deeper retrofits, to a smaller number of households.
“No one sector, energy retailers or even the government can provide the support that is needed for hundreds of thousands of households to make that investment on their own. So co-funding and financing is really important for scale.”
Mr Sullivan would like to see significant funding to address the energy efficiency of public, community and social housing.
“We wouldn’t like to see a reduction in public housing because the government has to raise standards,” he said. “We would like to see a fresh injection of funds.
“Standards are absolutely essential but we think we need solutions for the private market as well, particularly financing solutions. NILS is a useful product… but there is not really a product out there for an owner-occupier on a low income who has a little bit of capacity to pay.”