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Powering up to prevent the next bill shock

Winter power bills will soon arrive, pushing many Australians further into energy poverty.

But more can be done to help make ends meet, including better access to cheaper sources of power and more efficient home appliances, say renewables advocates.

“Low-income households and hardship customers are paying more for electricity,” Adrian Knack, chief technology officer at Redback Technologies tells AAP.

“They’re using almost twice as much power every quarter because they don’t have access to energy-efficient appliances.”

While the old air-con unit and garage beer fridge are among Australia’s notable energy guzzlers, the humble cup of tea uses about six per cent of power supplied to households in the United Kingdom.

The “Great British Kettle Surge”, when millions switch on at once at peak times, is a challenge for the national grid and not just during a global energy crisis.

Locally, though, consumer group Choice says heating and cooling are the biggest drain on Australia’s household energy budgets.

The biggest single offenders are large kitchen fridges while various small appliances account for about five per cent of use.

This means updating to more energy efficient models can make a difference – if budgets allow. And only boiling as much water as is needed.

A recent report found one in five Australian households experience some form of energy stress, including being unable to afford heating or cooling and having to pay bills late.

Energy stress also refers to spending a big chunk of income on power bills and this is much higher for people with a chronic health issue or disability, renters, low-income workers and people on JobSeeker payments.

This has important implications for the policies governments should implement, alongside the push for lower emissions, according to the report by social justice organisation the Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL).

Co-author Damian Sullivan says energy stress fell 15 per cent in 2020 when the temporary Coronavirus Supplement was introduced, something which shows the critical importance of an adequate level of income.

The “power pain” study uses the most recent data from the national Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey widely used by social policy researchers.

To make sure one-fifth of Australians aren’t left behind, BSL recommends minimum energy standards for all rental homes, subsidies for installing rooftop solar and support to buy more efficient electric appliances.

Redback uses “intelligent technology” in household solar systems so the battery can store and save cheaper energy for later use or to sell back to the grid when it gets the best price.

“If you reinvest any of that money into smarter appliances you get a benefit again, so you start to get a positive cycle where they can stay out of energy poverty,” Dr Knack says.

“We’re trying to break this hardship cycle.”

So-called virtual power plants or VPPs, where thousands of batteries are co-ordinated by power firms to operate together, are another option and have been growing in South Australia.

At no cost to them, more than 3000 Housing SA properties are fitted with solar and battery systems and connected to a VPP run by Tesla, with funding in place for another 1000 by 2023.

Tesla plans to have up to 50,000 South Australian homes connected to it.

A typical SA VPP customer is saving more than $420 a year, while generating clean energy and supporting the national electricity grid, the project says.

Part of the Powerwall battery is reserved to provide energy to the grid in the event of a blackout.

Other schemes in some states allow low-income households to swap rebates for new systems.

For example in NSW, eligible home owners can forgo 10 years worth of the Low Income Household Rebate for a free, fully installed, 3 kilowatt solar system – providing clean, cheap energy.

But renters or customers who can’t get finance also need help, Dr Knack says.

A subscription fee could be used to get cheap power, with ownership of the system remaining with the finance provider, energy firm or owner of social housing.

Australia’s energy “architects of the future” have been powering communities since long before the latest energy crisis by looking at how sustainable suburbs and regional communities can pool household resources.

As well as getting a better outcome on climate change, engineer and local energy advocate Heather Smith wants to make sure low-income households don’t miss out on progress.

“We are called to be the architects of the future, not its victims,” she told an industry forum, quoting American inventor Buckminster Fuller.

As chair of the Coalition for Community Energy, she knows the consumer is often absent from political discussions about emissions targets and redesigning the electricity grid.

“Community energy groups are helping people understand the energy transition,” Ms Smith tells AAP.

“But we’re all learning on the hoof.”

She says nobody knows whether household batteries are just a phase and will be replaced by “batteries on wheels” in electric cars.

“That’s one potential pathway but there’s a lot of structural change before we get there,” she says.

“We’re not going to get it solved tomorrow.”

Lots of groups just want renewable energy and want it fast but need to be wary, Ms Smith says.

“They’re excited by big renewable projects and they’ve had cowboys tromping around their communities saying to their local government you’ve got some spare land, we’ll put big solar on that.”

But the community may not understand the scale that is suitable for them.

“If you’re going to put in renewables, you’re going to want to use it and you’re going to need forms of storage and flexible load to do that,” Ms Smith says.

Load flexibility means being able to shift energy use to when it costs less and shaping it to when there is abundant cheap wind and solar power, with batteries to store spare energy for later.

The federal Australian Renewable Energy Agency says load flexibility could save up to $18 billion on investment in large-scale generation and storage, lower system costs and therefore, cut consumer bills.

Some people want a renewable energy microgrid to save money but that’s not a silver bullet either, Ms Smith says.

A microgrid is a small scale electricity system that may operate as a standalone “island” of energy – in a community, on a farm or mine site – or be hooked into the grid.

“There are things to do to save money. You start with onsite renewables, your rooftop solar, you start with energy efficiency and load flexibility,” Ms Smith says.

“All of those help build what you need in a 100 per cent renewable future.”

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