There are ways to beat the big energy bill shocks in September

Couple managing the debt

With almost 46 per cent of Australians working from home, households are seeing energy use creep up as heaters and airconditioners stay on during the day, two meals are cooked at the home instead of one and electronics stay on for longer.

In Victoria, expected to cop the worst of the bill shocks with a second spike in Covid cases forcing a second lockdown in the state, Australian Energy Regulator data shows that energy use in June shot up by 27 per cent compared to 2019 figures.

And the worst winter months are still to come.

People are worried. A report released by Energy Consumers Australia showed that almost half of households surveyed by the organisation were more concerned that they might not be able to pay energy bill than before the crisis, and 67 per cent were expecting a higher electricity bill because they’d been in social isolation.

The survey found that electricity bills were the top cost of living issue for consumers, ahead of housing costs and groceries.

And while some energy companies have committed to voluntary moratoriums on disconnections, not all have been so generous. And for those that have, the end dates for most of these moratoriums start from July onwards.

As such, severe energy bill shock is on the horizon for many Australians.

According to Australian Energy Foundation chief executive officer Alison Rowe, the looming bill shock disaster is an issue that’s front and centre for the for-purpose organisation dedicated to driving an equitable low carbon transition.

And while vulnerable Australians are likely to suffer most, and most additional government support is (suitably) targeting this group, Rowe says sky-high energy bills will be felt sharply by a much broader percentage of the population, particularly if rollbacks of JobKeeper and JobSeeker go ahead as planned.

“If we don’t do something, we will have a lot of people going without heating and food, and this leads to a number of issues around physical and mental health.”

Home energy advice to all Australians could help cushion the blow

Rowe’s organisation is working hard to steer Australian households clear of this iceberg. It has plans to expand its energy advice centre – which provides energy tips and tricks, helps customers secure a better deal with their retailer and connects them with trusted solar and energy upgrades installers, all in a 20-minute phone consultation.

Rowe wants to see all governments take up the energy advice service, and has crunched the numbers to show the benefits of expanding the program Australia-wide.

She says an investment of $19.4 million into a free energy advice hotline will inject $232.3 million into the economy and create 3800 jobs (through referred solar installations and the like), and save households $72.2 million on energy bills.

Rowe says she’s busy talking to energy companies and different levels of government about the idea.

Solar makes sense when you’re working from home

Once households master the low hanging fruit of energy efficiency such as sealing drafty windows, one option to drive down bills is rooftop solar, and potentially batteries. Recent research by SolarQuotes shows that Australian homeowners are losing up to $1400 in energy bills every year by not switching to solar.

The business case for rooftop solar has never made more sense according to Clean Energy Council’s director of distributed energy Darren Gladman. This is because when people are working from home, their energy consumption matches the energy generated by the panels during the day.

This means households are getting the most out of their solar, and benefiting from what’s effectively “free energy”. Many are also actively trying to match their energy consumption with their energy generation by putting loads of washing on when the sun is shining and so forth.

Data released last month by Natural Solar, Australia’s largest solar and battery installer, showed that households with rooftop solar and batteries emerged from the last “Covid-quarter” relatively unscathed. It found that 74 homes in a Sydney “smart city” development with solar and battery storage paid nothing for their electricity bills despite increased usage and consumption.

Solar on the home maintenance to-do list

It’s therefore not a complete surprise that the residential solar industry is booming.

Rowe suspects that rooftop solar featured on many household “to-do” lists, alongside other home improvement projects that saw business boom for Bunnings.

But interest in residential solar remains largely dictated by the rebates and incentive schemes available to consumers, Gladman told The Fifth Estate.

Gladman says that while it’s been the strongest six months on record for rooftop solar, with new data from Green Energy Markets finding that new rooftop solar installations in Australia were 40 per cent higher than for January-June 2019, the results have still been “patchy”.

He says solar sales vary from region to region, with some seeing increased interest while others are observing a drop off and have been forced to lay off staff or reduce hours as a result.

There’s no doubt that the presence of attractive incentive schemes are making a difference, with the ever-popular Solar Victoria program that offers a 50 per cent rebates on rooftop solar experiencing peak applications in May. There was also reportedly a rush to secure a spot on South Australia’s battery program before the rebate was to be decreased.

Customers are less smitten with the NSW government’s offer of interest free loans to purchase solar power and battery systems, however, which comes with many caveats on location and installations size and type, Gladman explains.

He also says that enquiries for batteries are up (while there’s not good data to show whether these expressions of interest are translating into sales) but isn’t sure why.

“I’m not sure if that was everyone prepared for the zombie apocalypse and the thought of bunkering down, or if it’s just a reflection of ongoing sustained shift in the commercial viability of batteries”.