BASED ON: T. Longden et al. Nature Energy (2021).

The policy problem

In Australia’s Northern Territory, most remote Indigenous households are provided with or elect to use prepayment electricity meters. This payment method is associated with high disconnection rates and is uncommon in other Australian urban and rural communities. These remote communities also experience some of the most extreme temperatures in Australia (Fig. 1a). Electricity use to sustain safe indoor temperatures can rapidly deplete available means, resulting in disconnection with little warning. As such, safe temperatures cannot be maintained, and households lose access to other essential services that electricity provides, such as food storage, washing and cooking. This raises the need to understand both the extent of current disconnections and the degree to which they are triggered by temperature. Without this understanding, the existence and severity of problems cannot be identified, and policy cannot be designed to mitigate current harms or prevent future ones.

Fig. 1: Temperature anomalies and the impact of temperature on disconnections and electricity use.
figure 1

a, Maximum temperature anomalies across Australia (July 2018 to June 2019 compared with 1961 to 1990), with the Northern Territory (NT) labelled. b, Probability of a same-day disconnection by temperature. c, Daily electricity use by temperature. Adapted from: a, under a Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0. Reproduced from: b, c, Longden, T. et al. Nat. Energy (2021); Springer Nature Ltd.

The findings

Among 28 remote communities in the Northern Territory, we found that 91% of households experienced a disconnection event at least once during the 2018/19 financial year; 74% of households were disconnected over 10 times, and 29% of all disconnections occurred during extreme temperatures. In mild temperatures (20–25 °C), households had a 1 in 17 chance of disconnection on a given day (Fig. 1b). This increased to a 1 in 11 chance during hot days (34–40 °C) and a 1 in 6 chance during cold days (0–10 °C). Households with high electricity use in the central Australian climate zones had a 1 in 3 chance of a same-day disconnection during temperature extremes. Energy insecurity is worsened when energy use is heightened owing to heating or cooling needs (Fig. 1c). Our analysis does not explore all of the complexities underlying energy insecurity in these communities, but we expect that these findings will inform discussions of energy insecurity in regions with extreme temperatures.

The study

This analysis used daily smart-meter data from 3,300 households across 28 remote communities in Australia’s Northern Territory to identify the incidence of disconnection events. These smart-meter data were matched with daily temperature observations from the closest weather station using data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. We estimated the probability of disconnection across distinct temperature ranges using random-effects probit regressions, which allowed us to include variables for the daily average temperature, month of the year, and different levels of electricity use. Using a reference temperature range allowed us to measure how temperature influenced electricity use and the likelihood of a disconnection during both hot and cold days. This assessment of whether extreme temperatures are a factor determining disconnection events was only possible with access to smart-meter data. As the vulnerability of prepayment customers is often overlooked, we recommend that these data be better monitored and made more accessible to residents, community organizations and researchers.