Empowered empathy helps counteract human cost of rising power

INSPIRED: Dr Helen Masterman-Smith said the project was a great avenue for low-income earners to help each other as well as get tips from organisers. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE
INSPIRED: Dr Helen Masterman-Smith said the project was a great avenue for low-income earners to help each other as well as get tips from organisers. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

The human cost of rising bills

As temperatures drop, bills tend to rise but for those who can’t afford to pay increasing power costs –  energy efficiency in extreme weather comes at a high price. 

Through Powering Up Helen Masterman-Smith discovered the rising price of power has a very human cost. 

“Some people are spending winter days in bed and summers taking repeated cold showers or baths,” she said.

“High electricity costs are making heating and cooling homes a real problem, especially for those with health conditions.

“We’re trying to find out how people can get a better balance between the low electricity footprint many of us try to achieve but without compromising too much on well-being.

“How you can power down without being freezing cold.”

Dr Masterman-Smith and John Rafferty, both with Charles Sturt University, ran the program with funding from the NSW Environmental Trust across a year. 

Dr Masterman-Smith said Albury, particularly Lavington, was chosen for the study as the region had the highest disconnection rates in the state.

“Lavington is one of the poorer postcodes and people are experiencing some distress,” she said.

“Across Albury we did a community survey and got 200 responses, with more still trickling in.

“The general picture is lower income earners are consuming less than others and experiencing thermal discomfort to a higher degree.”

Dr Masterman-Smith said of those who were on Centrelink benefits, 51 per cent said their home was uncomfortably cold for financial reasons, and 58 per cent uncomfortably hot for finance reasons. 

Of the entire Albury population, 52 per cent of people whose houses were uncomfortably cold because of the cost of heating revealed they went to public places for relief from the chill. 

Dr Masterman-Smith said going into the Powering Up program, they knew many people were sacrificing comfort for cost efficiency. 

But even she was shocked by how common it was.

“Really the issues coming through in the data matches the project concerns and what was hypothesized at the beginning – but the degree and extent of the problem we have been surprised by,” she said. Dr Masterman-Smith said unexpected bills could cause significant stress and completely throw out a budget.

To pay the bills many low-income houses make sacrifices, with some even forced to go without meals. 

“When you live on a razor’s edge as most people we spoke to are, every cent counts,” she said.

“And you spend a lot of time and energy thinking where you’ll get the money from.”

Anxiety constant as prices rise and rise

POWER UP: Director of the Global Village Laurie Roche with Helen Masterman-Smith and appliance that can help houses become more energy efficient. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

POWER UP: Director of the Global Village Laurie Roche with Helen Masterman-Smith and appliance that can help houses become more energy efficient. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

It’s not just the bill arriving in the letter box. 

It’s the weeks of anticipation. 

The knowledge slowly building inside, an anxious pressure in your chest. And after, the dread. 

Wondering how long it can be put off. 

Where will the money  come from, what can be sacrificed? 

Volunteer director of Lavington’s Global Village Laurie Roche is unemployed and knows how tough life can be amid rising energy prices.

“It’s a constant pressure,” he said.

“You know the bill is coming and you’re not looking forward to it, you’re anticipating it – in dread sometimes. 

“It’s a stress, from before it comes through to after it arrives, it’s ongoing.”

Mr Roche said the Powering Up program was both empowering and practical.

“A lot of us weren’t conscious about how good we were at being energy efficient,” he said.

“We weren’t giving ourselves credit for being energy conscious, but all our bills were coming in below the average and went down even further from there.”

Mr Roche said doing little things could have a huge impact in keeping energy bills low and efficiency high. 

“Things like door stoppers, as a child we had them and mum was always on my back about putting them across the door,” he said.

“Growing up I didn’t think it was worth it. 

“But the heat does leave under the door, so they can really help.”

Through winter, Mr Roche said exercise and being out of the house helped keep his heating usage and energy costs to a minimum.

“I try not to use the heater, I cycle every morning and I might dread it in the morning but by the time I’m out I warm up,” he said. 

“Last winter I used a small personal heater which isn’t terribly efficient but is efficient in only heating where you are.”

Program success, a testament to empathy

BRIGHT IDEA TO HELP: Charles Sturt University's Dr Helen Masterman-Smith and Dr John Rafferty at the start of the Powering Up program.

BRIGHT IDEA TO HELP: Charles Sturt University's Dr Helen Masterman-Smith and Dr John Rafferty at the start of the Powering Up program.

The secret to learning to live energy-efficiently, is a lot closer than one might think, with expert lived-knowledge found in low-income homes across Lavington and Albury.

Over the past year Powering Up has explored the way those in low income houses, who use up to 70 per cent less electricity, balance bills and wellbeing.

Along the way Helen Masterman-Smith found those living in sometimes hard circumstances understood the need to be efficient and have a wealth of power-saving knowledge.

“The vast majority saw it as an opportunity to help each other,” she said.

“We can all do better but these households should already have pride because they are more efficient than the Albury average already.

“They have done so much better than most, but we know that a pension or low income can be very difficult to live on, so the project was about how can people help each other in that kind of situation.

“They were very keen to help make life easier for someone else.”

The project, funded by the NSW Environment Trust, aimed to show householders how they can remain energy efficent, but not at the cost of their wellbeing.

“Project participants have much wisdom to convey on striking a balance between living well and powering down for the planet and the hip pocket,” Dr Masterman-Smith said.

“For example, one resident tried the little-known hack of placing bubble-wrap on her north-facing windows. It’s a cheap and easy form of double glazing.

“She ended up being one of our energy efficiency competition winners.”

Dr Masterman-Smith said residents received some assistance to upgrade some appliances to more energy-efficient versions.

But outside the program, low-income earners must strike a fine balance between out-of-pocket costs for new appliances and efficiency savings.

“It’s the idea of being thrifty, making things last as long as possible and holding onto a 20-year old fridge because you’re trying to do the right thing financially, but you have to consider the cost of it being so inefficient,” she said. “So you need to think can I save up or do I just stick with it?”

Dr Masterman-Smith said she was blown away by the ingenuity of people involved, their willingness to help each other and to learn the more technical side of things. 

“This was the first time some participants had the chance to talk to people who knew the technical side,” she said.

“But it was also the first time people had the chance to talk to one another.

“There was an extremely strong desire in the section of the community to help each other because they understand how difficult life can be, there’s a real empathy.”