A NATIONAL conference on energy affordability has been recommended after a steep rise in electricity prices has resulted in an increase in the number of households using more energy than they can afford.
The call, by the NSW Energy and Water Ombudsman, follows a large increase in electricity disconnections and the number of complaints lodged with the Ombudsman following higher electricity and gas prices.
Rises in electricity prices by about 20 per cent from last July are expected to lead to more disconnections in coming months as they flow through to higher bills.
''The issue is the same in every state: energy prices have been rising to varying degrees. Given that the [electricity] retailers are national, we should get all the big players together and nut out a joint approach,'' the Ombudsman, Clare Petre, said.
''While price rises will ease … many people are already struggling, using more energy than they can afford. We've written to all stakeholders. We're surveying them for their top five ideas to put on the table for discussion.''
Data released by the pricing regulator, the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, has found a 25 per cent surge in disconnections, with Ombudsman data showing a 43 per cent increase in complaints.
Ms Petre also called for the NSW government to give residents of retirement homes access to energy rebates to help them pay their rising power bills, along with extending prepayment options. Demand for vouchers continues to outstrip supply, as electricity prices have continued to rise sharply.
She also wants the government to commission IPART to review the existing assistance measures for low-income householders, as well as the assistance policies being used in other states.
''Work by AGL shows that the part of the market with real affordability issues is working households with children, yet they fall outside the traditional assistance framework,'' said St Vincent de Paul Society's policy and research manager, Gavin Dufty.
The privatisation of Victoria's electricity sector had helped affordability, he said, since there were a variety of packages with different offerings on electricity price and usage levels, which did not happen in NSW. In the three years since mid-2009, electricity prices have increased by up to 61 per cent in NSW; gas prices have risen by a third.
''It's important there is a better understanding of how to help people,'' Carolyn Hodge, of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said of the rise in disconnections. ''People can't lose access to an essential service.''
Ms Petre highlighted the need to review the individual state approaches to assistance.
''We want an independent review: is one [approach] better than the other?'' she said. ''Each state has its own program but there is no way of knowing which is the most cost-effective.''