25 Jul 2021

Fears for elderly Central Otago residents as frosts start to bite

6:06 am on 25 July 2021

Power poverty is already starting to bite in Central Otago - New Zealand's coldest district.

The senior woman holding gas bill in front of heating radiator. Payment for heating in winter.

file pic Photo: 123RF

Aurora Energy - the local power network company - increased its annual line charges by more than $100 a year for the average household in Central Otago and Wānaka earlier this year.

But that was a fraction of what they would face over the next few years.

Aurora's network was failing customers, and unsafe for the staff who worked on it, due to historic mismanagement and under-investment.

The company had changed dramatically since those issues were highlighted in 2016 and says it has got a plan for getting things back on track.

But the cost of that plan to Central Otago residents would be an extra $380 to $875 in annual line charges by 2026 compared to prices last year.

In a district that could experience 150 frosts a year that stings.

Snowy conditions at Fairlight in Central Otago.

Snow in Central Otago. Photo: Pete Van Berkel

Central Otago Budgeting Services co-ordinator Pam Hughes said, for some on the bread line, it was tough to get by.

"I've worked with a couple of elderly clients who are not turning on their heating sources and are staying in bed to keep warm, which is a concern," she said.

"Lately we've had -6C, -7C frosts with grey days so you're not getting any natural sunlight.

"I had an 84-year-old lady and she comes into town every second day and she goes to have a shower at the local swimming pool and, wherever she can, she'll charge her phone. So she's very minimalistic about what she's using in the way of heating.

"She uses an illegal gas heater, which is not vented, to heat her home but she doesn't do that very often."

There were a lot of budgeting pressures on low-income earners in Central Otago at the moment and any increase in monthly expenditure was tough to take - especially for pensioners on a fixed income, Hughes said.

"People are having to make sure they've got enough clothing [to stay warm in their homes], well some of them don't have warm clothing to rely on. You've got the flow on effects of not being able to heat your home, or your home's not insulated properly... and it all impacts on different things like your health and well-being, high power costs, the ability to buy food or the lack of."

Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan unsuccessfully petitioned Aurora Energy and the Electricity Authority to spread the cost of upgrading the network more evenly across the network.

Dunedin City Council owned Aurora, which also provided power to Dunedin and Queenstown, though line charges were already lower in those areas and would increase by less.

Cadogan said he did not think his pleas would change anything over the coming four years.

"Our last hope was the Electricity Authority would force it on Aurora. Aurora have always maintained that the costs fall where they lie and the argument they've always had is that we've got less people per kilometre of wire so therefore it costs more for every person," he said.

"I argued it hard with the Electricity Authority that, as a matter of fairness, particularly where another territorial authority owned the company, that it should be evened out. That regrettably and sadly... was lost and there's nowhere left to argue."

He accepted the anticipated line charge increases would become reality therefore there needed to be other mechanisms for helping vulnerable residents warm their homes as the winter energy payment was not enough.

The government needed to do more to ensure low-income earners have warm and healthy homes, Cadogan said.

He was also watching talk of reform of the electricity sector with interest.

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