We had a bit of a shock last week when we received our first winter gas bill. In the past 12 weeks, it has cost us nearly $2,200 (or £1,100) to heat our house. A few days later, the electricity bill arrived, adding a further $500 to the damage.
A quick phone call to our energy supplier, ActewAGL, revealed that, for the same period last year, this house was billed $2,400. For the year before, also $2,200. A bit of checking with friends and neighbours showed us that nobody was surprised at this, and that high energy bills are something of the norm, certainly in Canberra, and perhaps across Australia.
In truth, our energy bills so far this year work out roughly similar to what we paid in Denmark in our last years there, but with a couple of notable differences.
Firstly, and I’ve mentioned this before, thanks to the poor build quality of Australian homes, we managed to accumulate a heating bill of $2,200 without ever actually managing to be warm. All that heat leached out of the windows, door-frames and ceilings so that we were forced to supplement it with electric heaters in the lounge and electric blankets in the bedrooms.
Secondly, it’s fair to say that while the heating bills in Copenhagen and Canberra are comparable, there are very few people who would say that the climates of both cities are similar. So, while our Danish bill was gained in defence against night-time temperatures that could touch minus-20 degrees celsius, and in a place where six-to-eight weeks of sustained sub-zero temperatures are the norm, Canberra has no such mitigating conditions.
Which brings me to the only Canberra friends who thought our bill was excessive. As fellow migrants, they rented here before building a new home on the new northern suburb of Crace.
Wisely, they went through the proposed specifications for their home and upgraded them in several important places — wall and roof insulation were added, single-glazed windows were replaced with heat-reflective double-glazing, and so on. Such features would be standard practice in Europe; not so here.
As a result, while the rest of us shiver through winter and shudder at the thought of the cost, our friends are toasty and saving money at the same time.
It seems odd to me that in a land where natural resources are so plentiful — coal and gas if you don’t mind the environmental cost; sunlight, wind and wave power if you do — should a) have such high energy costs and b) be so accepting of energy-inefficient building practices.
But more than that, it’s provided us with a stark lesson in planning. As new migrants, we are currently renting a house while contemplating whether to buy and where and what type of house we should choose.
This first year as renters has helped us to decide that, if we buy, there are certain prerequisites for the type of house we would want. Should we choose to build, we’ve gained some important tips about what to pay extra for before it’s too late.
Canberra may be a great place, but its winters deserve to be taken seriously, as does the likelihood of ever-rising energy prices. Whether it’s down to lax regulation, shoddy building or the fact that a sellers’ market does little to encourage higher standards, the fact remains that finding a permanent home that won’t be cold, expensive to heat or, in our case, both, is no small challenge.