By Tracy Howe
With lives lost and homes destroyed, last week's devastating storms have been a stark reminder of just how fragile life can be.
At the same time, the dedication of our emergency workers and volunteers – saving lives, aiding evacuations and clearing debris – have once again made us proud.
Thanks largely to their hard work, for most people the weather conditions were little more than a series of pains in the backside – late trains, traffic, broken umbrellas and, of course, sopping wet shoes.
But not all of us have fared so well. Families in about 235,000 homes throughout the state were without power.
As anyone who has experienced a prolonged blackout knows, running a household without power is next to impossible. Kids struggle to do homework by candlelight, there are never enough blankets to keep warm and, unless you have a gas stove, good luck cooking dinner. And let's not even start with the cold showers.
However, the good news is that the lights will eventually come back on for these 235,000 odd families – thanks again to the tireless efforts of emergency crews and volunteers, who even today are still clearing fallen trees and replacing broken power lines.
Sadly, though, there will continue to be thousands of families throughout the state who will be forced to get by without any power in their homes – not because of bad weather, but simply because they can't afford it.
During the past five years, electricity bills have gone up 70 per cent. As a result, more and more families have struggled to pay and disconnections have doubled. Last year alone, nearly 33,000 households were taken off the power grid, with low-income households being the hardest hit.
This is why the Council of Social Service of NSW (NCOSS) and other not-for-profit organisations and service providers have long called for a decrease in the price of electricity as well as rises in the levels of support to help needy families pay their bills.
And now, thankfully, it appears there is some help on the way.
This week, the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) is due to hand down a network price determination, which will set energy costs for the next five years. With strong urgings from NCOSS and others, all indications are that the AER determination will result in a slight decrease in prices.
At the same time, the NSW government has promised new and increased support, including the introduction of gas rebates for low-income households, as well as guaranteeing that the value of existing electricity rebates will increase if and when prices go up.
But with bills set to remain high for some time, even with the possibility of a slight decrease in prices, more support is needed.
NCOSS has therefore outlined a clear case for percentage-based rebates – that is, linking the value of low-income rebates, which are currently set at a flat and fixed amount, to the amount of each individual household's bill. This would mean those who need to use more energy – such as large families or those needing life-supporting medical machinery – would be provided with more support. A percentage-based scheme would also ensure people living in rural New South Wales – who face the highest bills in the state – get the support they need.
Our thoughts will continue to be with those who have been hit hard by the storms. We should also continue to remember the thousands of low-income families whose lights will remain off, regardless of the weather.