Electricity is a hot topic but little has changed for residents in land lease communities
There have been a number of consultations, reviews and inquiries into electricity in NSW over the past couple of years. The Tenants’ Union provided submissions to a number of these inquiries raising the numerous issues that are impacting renters in NSW around electricity.
A couple of months ago Eloise Parrab (Land Lease Communities Officer) and Jemima Mowbray (Policy & Advocacy Manager) from the Tenants’ Union were invited to be witnesses at the NSW Government Law and Safety Committee Inquiry into Embedded Networks in NSW. In our submission and at a parliamentary hearing we put forward to the committee the issues and problems faced by residents living in residential land lease communities where they have embedded networks. We made recommendations on how to resolve these issues.
As many of you would be aware, living in a residential land lease community with an embedded network brings with it many problems. An embedded network is a private electricity network, though you can also find similar embedded network arrangements for the provision of hot and chilled water. The person or entity providing the electricity (or other energy or utility) buys it in bulk from an energy provider and then they on-sell the electricity to residents. Particularly for residents in residential land lease communities this can mean that your electricity supplier is also the operator of your community.
The operators of embedded networks are known as exempt on-sellers, they are not an authorised retailer and are not subject to the same requirements as authorised retailers in providing energy. This has led to a situation in NSW where consumers in embedded networks do not have the same level of protection and service as those not living in an embedded network.
Safety and supply issues are very common experiences for residents on embedded networks. The amount of amperage (how electricity current is measured) that can be provided to a resident depends on the quality of the infrastructure of the embedded network. Some residents receive low amperage and can only use a limited amount of electricity at one time (for example, the resident may not be able to run a toaster, microwave and air conditioning unit all at the same time).
There are some communities where older parts are on embedded networks and in the newer sections residents have accounts directly with energy retailers. In one community on the Central Coast of NSW there are two very different experiences depending on whether you live in the new or old part. There are vast differences in both level of supply available and amount spent on electricity by residents living in these two sections of the one community. There are 120 homes in the old part of the community where they have their electricity supplied to them through an embedded network. The infrastructure includes old and rusty electricity mushrooms. Some homes are connected to these mushrooms in turn with extension cords.
The residents in the old part can only get 32 Amps which impacts on their daily life. If they have multiple electrical appliances plugged in at the same time the power supply cuts off. When heating or cooling their homes with an air conditioner residents have to make a decision on what other appliances they need to disconnect.
In the older part of the community residents cannot shop around for a better deal on their electricity and their bills are more expensive than other residents living in the newer part of the community who can shop around for the best rate.
The report from the NSW Government Law and Safety Committee Inquiry into Embedded Networks was tabled in NSW Parliament in early November 20222. The Committee has made a number of recommendations that if implemented will positively impact on residents in land lease communities. They include that the NSW Government:
- implement measures to ensure that network infrastructure, particularly in residential land lease communities, is maintained and upgraded where necessary to ensure the safety of and reliable supply to residents, including the consideration of the potential cost consequences for residents.
- ensure there are appropriate requirements to disclose embedded network services to a potential owner or tenant before they purchase or lease a property in an embedded network, including requiring real estate advertisements to disclose the average recurring costs of all services provided to that property through an embedded networks (for example, the sale of hot or chilled water).
- work with the Australian Energy Regulator and the Energy and Water Ombudsman NSW to ensure exempt entities become members of the Ombudsman.
- urgently implement the recommendations of the 2021 statutory review of the Residential (Land Lease) Community Act 2013 relating to the charging of electricity in embedded networks.
You can find the complete report here https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/ladocs/inquiries/2873/Report%20-%20Embedded%20Networks%20in%20New%20South%20Wales.pdf
The cost of electricity is becoming an increasingly difficult issue for many residents in land lease communities as the prices increase for those that are in embedded networks and those who choose their own retailer. Understandably home owners are wanting to turn to Distributive Energy Resources (DER) in particular solar energy to reduce their energy bills and their household’s contribution to climate change. The NSW Government has introduced a new rebate system for eligible residents under the Bill Busting program. The Energy Bill Buster program will allow eligible households to receive the equivalent of up to 10 years’ worth of rebates in an upfront lump sum contribution towards a free solar system or home appliance upgrade. For further information on the scheme https://www.energy.nsw.gov.au/households/rebates-grants-and-schemes/rebate-swap-solar-and-energy-efficient-upgrades
It's proving to not be so straightforward a proposition for home owners living in land lease communities and even more difficult for those in embedded networks. Many homes do not currently have a connection that is capable of accommodating a solar system without a substantial upgrade, both to the residence and to the connecting community infrastructure. In addition, multiple residents with solar systems operating at the same time may have an impact upon the community connection to the surrounding network. This could result in requiring the community operator to upgrade the connection infrastructure or move onto a different connection arrangement.
Home owners wishing to install solar panels on their roof need to seek permission of the operator as it's an addition to their home. The Tenants’ Union has heard from home owners whose requests have been refused by the operator. They often cite that the infrastructure cannot handle solar energy being fed back into the system or that a home owner will have to pay thousands of dollars to upgrade the infrastructure. It's difficult to work out whether these reasons from the operator are correct, especially in communities where there are other homes which have had solar panels for many years.
In some communities solar panels have been installed on community facility buildings by the operators and it doesn't make sense to home owners when their request to install on their own home is refused. This is not something that individual home owners should have to be grappling with and trying to understand the complexity of the infrastructure issues involved. In their submission to the Embedded Network Inquiry, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) recommended that NSW Department of Customer Service work with the NSW Office of Energy and Climate Change to initiate a process to develop a suite of recommendations enabling the implementation of sustainability infrastructure in land lease communities. Such a process should engage with energy networks, and resident and consumer stakeholders, to identify opportunities to use DER to improve community resilience, independence and long-term financial sustainability. The Tenants’ Union is very supportive of this recommendation.
If you have requested permission to install solar panels on your home and been refused by the operator then you have the option of pursuing the matter at the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT). You would need to present evidence to the Tribunal to show that the operator has unreasonably refused your request. Before you go down this path we encourage you to seek advice from your local Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service, details below. Unfortunately there are no published decisions from the Tribunal which have looked at the issue of solar panels and a home owner’s request to make this addition to their home (requiring community operator approval) under the Residential Land Lease Communities Act 2013.
Eloise Parrab has recently been appointed a member of the Customer Advocacy Group for Essential Energy. They are one of the three NSW electrical distributor companies and cover the majority of Country NSW, Northern NSW, Southern NSW and North Coast.
The role of the Customer Advocacy Group is to be a proactive forum for consultation and to provide insight and feedback to Essential Energy on behalf of Essential Energy’s customer base, on any matters relating to the supply of electricity and associated services. Access to solar power in land lease communities is an issue that Eloise will raise with Essential Energy. She is keen to hear from residents living in the areas covered by Essential Energy of issues they currently face relating to the supply of electricity and associated services. Please get in touch with Eloise on 8117 3700 or by email eloise.parrab [at] tenantsunion.org.au
A lot of consultation has also taken place about electricity including charges, billing and invoicing in land lease communities on embedded networks as part of the five year Statutory Review of the Residential Land Lease Communities Act 2013 but to date we have not seen any of the recommendations from the Review translate into amendments to the legislation.
So far we have seen lots of talking and consulting on the issue of electricity but there has been little in the way of actual meaningful changes. Hopefully 2023 will see less talk and more action in improving the situation for residents in embedded networks and generally giving home owners in land lease communities more choice in the type of energy resources they use to power their home.
By Eloise Parrab