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Remote and Indigenous communities suffer more energy insecurity

Dechlan Brennan -

Indigenous people living in remote communities are more vulnerable to power failures than people living in regional and metropolitan areas, a new study has found.

Research from the Australian National University (ANU) and the Tangentyere Research Hub in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) found 20 per cent of Australians don't have equal access to electricity protections for their households.

"Our review indicates that an estimated 5 million Australians are living in settlements where not all customers are guaranteed protections across the five dimensions of life support: rooftop solar connection, disconnection reporting, guaranteed service levels and clear and independent complaints processes," the report stated.

In a study of over 3,000 settlements, WA and the NT were found to have the greatest number of properties with residents not having access to some legal protections ensuring they remain connected to 'core' electricity services.

The researchers identified five categories of legal protection: disconnection protections for life support customers (medical equipment that requires electricity), rules for unplanned interruptions, mandatory electricity disconnection reporting, complaints process clarity and independence, and clear guidelines for rooftop solar connection.

They found Indigenous communities are 15 per cent more likely to not have access to any of these five categories.

Central Land Council chief executive Les Turner said energy insecurity was a "serious concern" for their constituents.

"Previous research from ANU has shown that households in remote Aboriginal communities experience power disconnections every three days during the hottest periods," the CLC said.

"Such frequent disconnections make it difficult for people to store food and medicines safely and keep their homes at safe temperatures."

Mr Turner said Mparntwe has experienced temperatures up to eight degrees hotter than average this summer.

"There is a clear racial divide: non-Indigenous communities in remote areas are much more likely to have protections," he said.

There was also a concern from researchers for people suffering from domestic violence having their power cut off, with the report noting Indigenous women "often face severe and discriminatory systemic barriers to addressing family violence."

"As of July 2022, only the state of Victoria provides protections from disconnection for those experiencing family violence," the report said.

Protections that took effect in Victoria from 1 January 2020 require electricity retailers to have a

family violence policy and outline minimum standards of assistance for vulnerable customers. This includes acknowledging family violence as a potential cause of financial difficulty.

Co-author Michael Klerck from the Tangentyere Research Hub said electricity connection was a concern for Town Camp households in Alice Springs, "particularly during the hot summer months and cold winters in central Australia."

"Many of these inequities will only become more apparent because of climate change. There needs to be a clear-eyed focus on reducing, or at least not entrenching, existing inequalities in this space," he said.

ANU lead researcher Dr Lee White said there was a need to better regulate electricity guarantees in Australia.

"Electricity is vital to many aspects of wellbeing, including keeping homes safe and comfortable and keeping foods and vital medicines, such as insulin, refrigerated," Dr White said.

"This study shows there is room to improve electricity protections for all Australians, but especially those who have long been underserved because of regulatory difference."

The researchers are calling for the creation of a national database to actively monitor and measure levels of energy protections for households, as well as mandatory nationwide electricity disconnection reporting.

Mr Turner agreed with the authors about mandatory reporting, adding he believed the NT government "must also provide a clear pathway for pre-paid energy customers to access rooftop solar.

"The CLC wants the NT Government to ensure that its Remote Power Systems Strategy delivers clear community benefits that contribute to lower electricity costs for remote households and job opportunities in installing and maintaining solar infrastructure," he said

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