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Record power bills will force more people to switch off their heaters this winter, ultimately putting children and the elderly in hospital, social providers say.
Most big power retailers are raising their prices to record levels within the next month, with some in the capital set to be hit with increases of up to 7 per cent.
Retailers and electricity networks are blaming each other for the rises. Nova, an electricity supplier, sent a letter to a Petone customer this week announcing a doubling of its daily charge - from 81 cents to $1.69 - and blaming lines company Wellington Electricity.
The Electricity Authority - the Crown body that monitors competition in the market - said this week it would step in to uncover exactly why prices are rising.
Regardless of who is to blame, social agencies say higher bills will mean more disconnections, and low-income groups going without heating. It would also mean more babies and elderly people in hospital with respiratory illnesses linked to the cold.
Geoff Curson, a co-ordinator at the Budgeting and Advocacy Service in the Wellington suburb of Newtown, said an increasing number of his clients were turning to loan sharks just to pay their power bills.
More also seemed to be migrating to a pay-as-you-go electricity supply that can cut out once the credit reaches zero, or had become caught between providers and had no power at all.
For low-income families and some older people, any price increase, even a slight one, had a huge impact on their ability to pay for other things, he said.
"We do have clients that don't turn the heater on at all, they just use a blanket. We had one family that spent three nights in the dark after they had their power turned off."
Community Energy Network executive officer Jo Wills said clients had reported not taking warm showers or not using hot water for washing the dishes.
Cold, unhygienic homes inevitably led to more illness and ultimately more people in hospital. "And we know it's not getting any better. It's probably getting worse."
Wellington academic Geoff Bertram, whose research has included looking at competition in New Zealand's electricity market, said the latest price rises would mean more poverty and power disconnections.
The rises were starting to push people to other energy sources, such as gas and wood.
"If you get disconnected, most people put on a woollen jersey and light the fire."
Debate over power prices has raged for decades, with critics claiming steep hikes are a profit grab in an uncompetitive market. Power companies have contested these claims, and the Government has said a big industry shake-up in 2010 had improved competition.
Last month the power companies were backed by the Electricity Authority, which said the cost of power had actually risen faster than the price paid by retail customers.
PUT ANOTHER LOG ON THE FIRE
As electricity prices rise, David Phipps, says more people are turning to wood fires. For most of the past decade, the Ablaze business owner found himself selling less and less wood as people switched to heat pumps to warm their homes.
But about two years ago the trend switched, and he believes rising power prices have been the main driver.
"We get a lot of people calling up horrified at their $900 power bill. That sort of thing would happen several times a day," he said. Last year outsold the year before, despite a mild winter, and he is expecting to sell a third as much again this year.
People were also more likely to buy less, more often, to space out the cost, he said. "I think really it just comes down to fuel poverty."
Draw curtains at dusk to keep the day's heat in.
Window film kits keep heat in without the expense of double glazing.
Use the timer on your heater, if you have one.
Fix any broken or leaking pipes.
Install extraction fans or vents. If you can't afford them, open the windows while cooking or having a shower.
Dry clothes outside, or in a vented dryer.
Save on hot water
Use cold water washes in washing machines.
Take shorter showers.
Use efficient showerheads.
Save on appliances
Don't leave things on standby.
Turn them off at the plug.
Check your fridge door seals.
Use a heated towel rail only when needed. Don't leave it on.
Save on lighting
Turn lights off when you're not using them.
Replace frequently used bulbs with low-energy versions.
Source: EECA Energywise
- The Dominion Post