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Energy poverty: Inside Australia’s growing problem

·Finance reporter
·4-min read
A road in the Northern Territory
The Northern Territory is only going to get hotter, but will it have enough energy to cool it? (Source: Getty)

With swathes of rich, bright-red desert and a scorching sun overhead, the Northern Territory’s heat is etched into its landscape, but climate change is creating new marks… and creating a crisis.

According to the Federal Government’s own research on climate change, the average annual temperature has increased by 1.5C since 1910 and the number of days with dangerous conditions for bushfires has increased in almost all parts of the territory.

The forecast for the future is stark: the NT will get hotter, with an annual temperature increase of 1.5-2.5 C. The two summers between 2018 and 2020 were the hottest on record.

For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, especially those who live in remote communities, keeping cool is increasingly becoming a matter of life and death.

Original Power - a new alliance between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, energy companies, unions, and other stakeholders - is working to develop clean, renewable energy projects on Indigenous land.

It will also provide jobs and help protect sacred sites and land under Native Title.

“We can’t stand by and watch people living in conditions that could easily be improved,” Original Power executive director Karrina Nolan said.

“The network is really looking at what the barriers are - whether they be policy, infrastructure or regulatory - and working out what needs to be done to remove those barriers.

“At the end of the day, this is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land and we should have the right to say what happens on our country. And if we choose to consent to large-scale projects, we want to ensure that there are benefits shared by everyone.”

Australia-wide problem

The impacts of climate change and energy are not restricted to the Top End.

It’s estimated about 3 per cent of Australians experience energy poverty, which means they can’t sufficiently heat or cool their homes.

The flow-on effects include poorer physical and mental health, with renters, single parents, people with chronic illnesses and women more likely to fall into energy poverty.

One of the biggest contributors to energy poverty is that the majority of Australian homes have not been built to be energy efficient.

A 2011 Sustainability Victoria study revealed the average home built before 1990 had an energy efficiency of just 1.6 stars. For homes built between 1990 and 2005, it was about 3.1 stars. Currently, 6 stars is the mandated standard.

A recent report by Climate Council Australia stated that too many Australian homes were “damp, draughty, too cold in winter and too hot in summer”.

“With inefficient appliances and poor thermal performance, residents are reliant on large amounts of artificial heating and cooling to stay comfortable,” the report said.

“Exposure to extreme temperatures can cause increases in respiratory and cardio-vascular diseases, leading to increased deaths, particularly in cold weather.

“Cold living environments account for at least 6 per cent of deaths in Australia each year, a mortality rate double that of Sweden, known for its sub-zero winters.”

Extreme heat and health

Extreme heat poses a danger to people’s health, especially the elderly and those with chronic conditions. Hot weather can exacerbate existing kidney, heart and lung disease, and can compound the impacts of mental illness.

A Melbourne heatwave, in February 2009, led to the deaths of more than 370 people. A week later, the Black Saturday bushfires struck, killing another 173 people across Victoria.

The indirect consequences of energy poverty can also have significant impacts on peoples’ everyday lives.

Some are unable to bathe or wash clothes as often as needed, while others are forced to go to bed early because they can’t afford to heat their homes.

Some people cut back on meals and medical treatments so they can afford to keep the refrigerator running to keep food safe.

Ngadju elder Les Schultz lives in Norseman/Ngadju Country, a small inland rural town in the south of Western Australia. It’s a dry place, he says, surrounded by the driest woodland on Earth.

Days in which the temperature climbs into the 40s now start in late August.

“Most of the houses here don’t have air conditioning,” he said. “A lot of the challenges I see our neighbours have is unreliable electricity, shutting down weekly.

Nolan said it should be a “basic right” for people to have their household energy needs met.

“We’re seeing the opportunity how fast, clean energy can deal with some of these issues.”

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