Can we overcome barriers to climate justice and social justice simultaneously?

Balancing affordability for people who struggle with costs of energy with the imperative to reduce climate impacts of our energy use is a well-known challenge. Affordability and de-carbonisaton (or clean energy) are two parts of the so-called ‘energy trilemma’. The third is security – having enough energy available to meet the needs of households, businesses and industries. The challenge faced everywhere is to maintain a good enough standard – and preferably to make substantial improvements - on each of the three dimensions without compromising the others. And as any changes to the energy system have the potential to benefit some more than others, fairness will always be a central concern.

In Tasmania, the tension between two priorities of affordability and clean energy has a particular flavour: roof top solar is one of the popular forms of clean energy, but is imperfectly matched with Tasmania’s climate. By their nature, sun-based systems generate less energy in winter, when Tasmanian households have the highest energy needs. Winter bills are typically twice as high as summer bills in Tasmania, unlike many parts of the mainland, where the peak costs are in summer.

Appropriate storage, such as batteries, or using solar energy for hot water, can help. But the products are costly, which pushes back on affordability.

Affordability of energy challenges many households. Tasmanians report intense difficulties meeting the cost of energy during winter months when heating is needed. Some families are forced to choose whether to heat or eat, some stop having visitors because they can’t afford to heat their living spaces. People have told us they stop going out, they huddle under blankets on the couch, and go to bed much earlier in winter.

These experiences of energy hardship are partly explained by high poverty rates.  Tasmania is the poorest state of Australia: 31.3% of Tasmania’s population are in the most disadvantaged socioeconomic status quintile (one-fifth) of Australia’s population, a higher proportion than for any other State or Territory.[1] The median household weekly income in Tasmania is $1,100 compared to the Australian figure of $1,438, and 26.3% of households had a weekly household income of less than $650.[2]

Another piece of the affordability puzzle is that much of the housing stock in Tasmania is old and not well insulated. Heating a draughty home can be unmanageably expensive.  Many households who would benefit most from more energy-efficient homes lack the financial resources for the necessary investment in insulation and appliances.

Affordability is only one piece of the energy trilemma, but is complicated in its own right. These complexities vary within and between locations. Understanding complex affordability challenges, and especially what they mean for how people live, is a critical part of approaching the energy trilemma with justice in mind.

 

[1] Eslake, S. Education, Productivity and Economic Performance: Tasmania Then, Now and Tomorrow Address to the Launceston Historical Society, 16 March 2017, p 9.

[2] ABS 2016 Census Quickstats Tasmania available at http://www.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2016/quickstat/6?opendocument

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Cynthia Townley currently works for the Tasmania Council of Social Service as a Policy Analyst and Advocate for Essential Services.