The National Energy Market (the NEM) is the biggest machine in the world and it isn’t getting any simpler or less complicated to negotiate for consumers. Fires, floods, climate change and Covid19 have added several more layers of complexity and challenge. Developments in the way energy is both produced and consumed (solar photovoltaics, wind energy, batteries and other storage techniques, energy efficiency) are radically changing how consumers are negotiating the energy market. CALD consumers have generally had a varied engagement with new products and services in the energy sector. Highlights of the research conducted by ECCNSW in 2012 and 2016 can be accessed here, here and here.
This work pointed to an enthusiasm to engage with emerging technologies by CALD consumers and a considerable interest in environmental issues, not necessarily merely cost. This enthusiasm was tempered by a lack of easily accessible and understandable information provided in linguistically and culturally appropriate ways. It remains critical that CALD voices are heard loud and clear as our communities navigate this complex and confusing market.
Our Energy Advocate has just completed a three and a half year project funded through Energy Consumers Australia (ECA) to monitor and evaluate the efforts of energy businesses, agencies, regulators and energy ombudsman schemes across the NEM in engaging and consulting with CALD consumers. The final report of this project, Continuing Cultural Connections: CALD Best Practice in a consumer centric energy market has been produced and can be viewed here.
This final report is an extension and updating of the acclaimed ECCNSW guidelines for CALD consumer engagement Cultural Connections: Engaging CALD energy consumers which is available here.
This final report includes an additional nine case studies of CALD consumer engagement by some of the participants of the project and highlights the important and groundbreaking work being done by a range of players in the energy market. ECCNSW has been a major driver of some of these initiatives and has provided substantial advice, guidance and on-the-ground support to most of the activities. The Jemena Gas Network (JGN) involvement with the Arabic community in Fairfield was one of the stand-out successes and an innovative first for the NEM. The sessions were facilitated by ECCNSW bi-lingual educators in a venue central to the community. This project, coupled with the wider Jemena work on its five year network revenue determination in 2019 was entered in the prestigious Consumer Engagement Award, jointly sponsored by Energy Networks Australia (ENA – the national peak body for energy network businesses) and Energy Consumers Australia (ECA). The work was awarded the first prize in the hard-fought competition and set a very high bar for any future work in the area.
One of the areas that was identified in previous energy market research undertaken by ECCNSW in 2016 was the low take-up by CALD communities of energy assistance measures available to consumers experiencing payment difficulty. There are a range of reasons for this low utilisation. Apart from the obvious one where there is a lack of awareness of the opportunities for assistance, there was a considerable proportion of those surveyed who knew of them but did not take advantage of them when they could.
General recognition of the significant lack of use of the range of payment assistance measures by the wider consumer population by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC – the rule-maker for the NEM) led to the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) consulting with a range of stakeholders including ECCNSW to establish a set of binding payment assistance guidelines for electricity retailers (the AER Hardship Guidelines). These Guidelines came into force in late 2019 in the Eastern states excluding Victoria.
Following extensive consultation with stakeholders over more than two years (including ECCNSW) the Essential Services Commission Victoria (ESCV) introduced in January 2019 its own binding payment assistance mechanism for consumers in Victoria, the Payment Difficulties Framework. These two sets of enforceable guidelines form a major area of interest for the Energy Advocate and evaluating their effectiveness for CALD communities in need was the major focus of a research and advocacy project grant application to ECA in late 2019. While ECCNSW was not successful in gaining funding from ECA for this project, it remains a major area of importance for CALD consumers in need of assistance with their energy needs.
The Covid19 crisis has highlighted the difficulties experienced by CALD communities in gaining access to comprehensive, reliable and understandable information and assistance. ECCNSW is working with the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) to fine-tune appropriate information in language around the assistance measures available to consumers during the Covid19 crisis as well as working with energy businesses to ensure their information is accessible to CALD consumers. ECCNSW is also working with consumer advocates (led by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC)) to provide a best practice document to guide energy businesses in their interactions with consumers in this very challenging time.
One of the major observations of the Continuing Cultural Connections Final Report is the critical importance of ‘being in the room’ for CALD advocacy to be effective. Most, if not all of the successful projects undertaken by energy businesses and agencies have been advised and supported by CALD advocates and this engagement is only possible through ongoing, appropriately funded advocacy. It is challenging to maintain the capacity and expertise for successful and informed advocacy within the confines of a year-to-year project-based funding model which is the current system for most consumer energy advocacy and research.
Our Energy Advocate is a member of a range of energy business customer consultative councils and groups (Ausgrid, AGL, Endeavour, Jemena Gas Network, SA Power Networks and Transgrid). The Advocate is also a member of the AER Customer Consultative Group (AER CCG) and its Working Group looking at the implications of Covid19 across the NEM. The Energy Advocate is also a member of the Healthy and Affordable Homes Coalition (HAH), the Energy and Water Consumer Advocacy Panel (EWCAP) as well as joining the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) Consumer Forums and the Energy and Water Ombudsman Consultative Council on a regular basis.