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Almost half a million people in Australia including nearly 150,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents live in remote areas that often have different arrangements for rights and protections associated with electricity supply. Australian National University energy experts Dr Lee White and Sally Wilson from the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), Brad Riley and Dr Francis Markham from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) and Dr Lily O’Neill from Melbourne Climate Futures at the University of Melbourne will be working together on geographical mapping and statistical analysis of differences in electricity regulatory environments across Australia.
Their project, Bringing to light regulatory disparities for electricity access and services across Australia, is one of the broadest energy regulatory mapping projects undertaken in Australia in terms of scope and detail. Funded by Energy Consumers Australia (ECA), the research aims to provide a critical overarching view by building an original data set of electricity regulations to support geographic mapping and statistical analysis of differences in electricity regulatory environments across Australia.
The research team seeks to assess the extent to which remote communities are statistically more likely to lack 1) key information on protections for consumer wellbeing, 2) hardship policies and disconnection protections including for life support 3) clear contractual relationship with electricity provider and 4) clarity on rooftop solar connection.
Project lead Lee White says the funding signifies a growing recognition in many quarters of the need to get a bird’s-eye view of where protections in remote communities can differ from protections in locations within the National Electricity Market.
“The scale and extent of these differences remains anecdotal, brought to light through consumer advocacy and research at the level of the individual jurisdictions. Without an overarching view of the situation, it is challenging to identify where change is needed and how best to target it,” she says.
Lee hopes that the data collected will make visible the extent of regulatory disparity both within and across jurisdictions (including protection from disconnection) and assist in understanding where the gaps or areas for further improvement lie. A recent paper co-authored by members of the team Energy insecurity during temperature extremes in remote Australia, showed the extent of disconnection events in remote NT communities were likely to coincide with extreme temperatures.
“We realised at that point that there was a real need for a comprehensive view of regulations in this area. Disconnection from electricity during extreme heat can have negative health impacts and can make it hard to store medicines such as insulin and to maintain food security,” she elaborates.
“Extreme temperatures will only worsen with climate change, so it’s important to understand now where current protections are limited. This project is intended to provide this understanding, while analysing broader trends in who lacks these protections, and where they’re located.”
The research will cover rights and protections related to disconnection and hardship, ability to identify key organisations through which to access these protections, and the ability to access distributed renewable energy sources. Research Assistant Sally Wilson says the project will identify the extent to which protections differ between customers – including for those who pre-pay for access to electricity and those who post pay.
“With this data, we’ll produce visual maps which depict the extent of regulatory disparities in electricity access with the aim of providing an accessible and powerful tool for community-based advocacy organisations and policymakers alike,” she says.
Sally added that one of the strengths of the project is the partnerships they have been able to build with community-based organisations. Having previously worked with stakeholders such as ECA, South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) and Original Power for their 2021 APIP project, the team is already working towards recognising the needs of communities and community-based organisations, around which the project revolves.
“This helps us to understand from the ground-up the information and outputs that stakeholders need for their advocacy work, to begin to address the disparities in protections from energy disconnection, access rooftop solar and other key areas affecting remote and regional communities,” she explains.
“As we build the data set and start to develop a critical understanding of the extent of disparities through statistical analysis and geographical mapping, the input of advocates such as SACOSS and Original Power is critically important. By consulting with key stakeholders, we hope this research has the potential to provide tools, data, and resources for impact far beyond the timeline of the project itself.”
Karrina Nolan, Executive Director at Original Power says that there are numerous regulatory barriers to realising energy security for many communities.
“We really need to do much more to enable low-income remote and regional consumers to be able to shift to lower cost options like rooftop and community solar. This important project is particularly useful for community-based organisations like ours, both in efforts to map existing protections, and to understand where the gaps and the opportunities for improvement remain,” she says.
According to Georgina Morris, Policy Officer at SACOSS, the research will shine a light on the gaps and structural inequities surrounding the sale and supply of energy in remote and regional Australia. Having a national picture of the regulatory frameworks and energy supply arrangements will support collaboration and coordination across jurisdictions, creating opportunities for SACOSS and other state-based organisations to develop and promote consistent policy that addresses the need for safe, affordable, and sustainable delivery of essential services in all remote areas.
“Energy is essential to life, and we know residents in remote areas of Australia do not receive the same supports and protections from disconnection as other on-grid energy customers,” she says.
“This project will assist governments, regulators, and policy makers to have a clearer picture of the current frameworks, enabling coordinated efforts to address the gaps and ensure remote customers maintain a secure energy supply to avoid the negative health, social and economic impacts associated with frequent energy disconnections.
“This research will underpin our advocacy around ensuring South Australians living in remote areas have a secure and sustainable energy supply and are supported and protected from multiple disconnections due to an inability to pay. Energy security will be increasingly important as remote residents continue to experience extreme weather events due to the impacts of climate change.”