Climate change, poor housing fuelling energy concerns for First Nations communities

Climate change, poor housing fuelling energy concerns for First Nations communities

More than 90 per cent of households surveyed in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory had their electricity disconnected over a 12-month period, according to a new study investigating the link between the problem and extreme temperatures.

The study, led by the Australian National University and published in Nature Energy, looked at data from 3300 homes in 28 communities.

The remote community of Yuendumu in the Northern Territory.Credit:Janie Barrett.

Among them, 91 per cent had their power disconnected at least once, and 74 per cent had their power disconnected more than 10 times in the 2018-19 financial year.

The homes ran on pre-paid electricity meters and were disconnected when credit ran out. Researchers said the practice puts disadvantaged people at risk. The study found most of the communities were unregulated by the Australian Energy Regulator.

“In other parts of Australia where consumers are protected by the Australian Energy Regulator guidelines, people cannot be disconnected from electricity when life support medical equipment is being used,” the study found.

“This protection is not comprehensively applied in remote NT communities.”

It also found a link between extreme temperatures and the chances of a home having its power disconnected, leaving researchers concerned Indigenous communities are already feeling the brunt of climate change.

“Disconnections increase from an already high baseline of one in 17 during mild temperatures (20–25 degrees), to a one in 11 chance of disconnection during hot days (34–40 degrees) and a one in six chance during cold days (0–10 degrees),” the study said.

Study co-author, Simon Quilty from ANU’s College of Health and Medicine, said he was concerned for people who may be living in poverty.

“It’s very well known that the quality of housing in remote communities is incredibly poor but what we haven’t understood until now is that their capacity to cope with extremes in temperatures, which is dependent on air conditioning, often is severely impaired and a lot of these houses appeared dangerous in hot weather,” Dr Quilty said.

“This issue is intimately related to housing quality, so the cost of cooling a very poorly constructed dwelling in a hot environment is many-fold higher than the cost of air conditioning a well-constructed building.”

Study co-author Norman Jupurrurla Frank, from the Julalikari Council Aboriginal Corporation in Tennant Creek, said he buys a power card every few days.

"People are still living rough, houses are hot in summer with no insulation and burning like an oven, and in winter they are freezing like a fridge," he said.

Dr Quilty also argued that people faced additional hardships when their power was disconnected, saying things like food and medicine spoiled, and residents’ health suffered.

“In the last three years we’ve had some extremely hot weather that is profoundly record-breaking in the north of Australia and this is a direct consequence of climate change,” he said.

“The urgency to rectify housing and improve energy security for remote Indigenous Australians is quite profound, if we don’t do it there will be catastrophic outcomes.”

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