Meet Jo and Ash* – parents to a young child relying on multiple pieces of life support equipment at home. Not surprisingly, they find unplanned power outages stressful and always get in contact with their energy provider for guidance. Typically, the advice is the same: head to the local hospital. However, going through the process of preparing their child for an ambulance ride can be quite traumatic. And given that the power often comes back on quite quickly, Jo and Ash wish they could get clearer guidance on estimated restoration times to avoid any unnecessary disruption.
There are tens of thousands of Australians in similar positions due to their reliance on in-home medical equipment ranging from oxygen respirators or ventilators to kidney dialysis machines. For these people, secure and reliable power supply is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
Federal regulations to protect these vulnerable individuals have recently been strengthened, requiring energy providers to maintain a register of life support customers. Further, customers are encouraged to have a contingency plan in case their power goes out without warning. Yet, previous research conducted by one Eastern state-based distributor found that a large proportion did not. With limited data available on these customers, the industry has been grappling to understand the reasons for this behaviour.
The Australian Energy Foundation, supported by a grant from Energy Consumers Australia, conducted research seeking to identify the challenges facing life support customers and ways they could be better supported by the energy industry, including through potential policy reforms.
A virtual roundtable event was held in August 2020 that was attended by representatives from energy distributors, retailers, and regulators. This process was pivotal to shaping the direction of the research, with issues identified extending beyond a lack of customer actions plans.
Online customer surveys commenced in November 2020 and by January 2021, more than 3600 responses were available to be analysed. A follow-up survey collected a further 500 responses.
Key findings included:
- Over half of all life support customers were aged over 65 years.
- A third of these customers lived alone.
- 54 per cent did not have a plan for a power outage.
- Only 7 per cent had access to back-up power.
- 9 per cent reported difficulty managing bills, despite qualifying for life support concessions.
- Many customers believed their inclusion on the Life Support Customer Register afforded them priority restoration following an outage, despite this not being a protection under existing regulations.
- 39 per cent of customers found it difficult to access information during unplanned outage.
While no two life support customers are the same, the survey identified some common and overlapping experiences and expectations. Key challenges faced by customers were summarised into fictional “personas”, such as Jo and Ash*, to communicate this important insight to industry stakeholders.
Other personas included Maria*, a disability pensioner living alone who is dependent on an oxygen concentrator for 24 hours each day, and Mohammed*, a semi-retired man aged in his 50s, who is concerned that power outages would leave him without access to his landline and television. What if his mobile phone was not charged? How would he find out the extent of the outage? Was the issue the fuse box in his building or was the entire neighbourhood without power?
The AEF research project highlighted several shortcomings in the services currently provided to life support customers. Many of the recommendations put forward – such as a dedicated 24-hour hotline for life support customers, better education to fill knowledge gaps, and extending planned outage notifications beyond the current four days – have been targeted at improving customer service.
Other recommendations extend beyond the control of industry and would require further system-level reforms. They include replacing the term “Life Support Customer” with language focused on energy needs rather than medical condition, establishing a central database for information sharing and improving access to back-up power.
AEF engagement leader Holly Fiske said the research and the recommendations would hopefully lead to improved services for life support customers.
“We are continuing conversations with industry with the hopes that some of the recommendations for service-level improvements can be advanced,” she said.
“There is also an opportunity to take these recommendations further through an industry-led forum so that processes can be standardised to reduce complexity, error, and difficulty for consumers.”
ECA chief executive officer Lynne Gallagher said the purpose of the grants program was to build knowledge and capacity to support energy policy development.
“This project aligns with ECA’s objective to promote the long-term interests of energy consumers, especially with respect to safety,” she said. “This research has contributed valuable insights that will lead to enhanced service, support and protections for these customers.”
*Jo and Ash are personas created for research purposes but reflect the experiences of real customers.