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Tess Ikonomou

Hardship hits home as prices squeeze household budgets

More Australian households are seeking assistance to pay soaring power bills. (Russell Freeman/AAP PHOTOS)

One of Australia's largest energy companies is supporting thousands more households with hardship programs as people grapple with rising prices.

Origin Energy general manager for government engagement Tim O'Grady told a Senate inquiry into the cost of living crisis that the number of customers it was now supporting had risen by 22 per cent compared to last year. 

As of June this year, 71,000 residential customers were being helped through the company's hardship program. This is contrasted to the 58,000 households Origin was helping in 2022.

Mr O'Grady said the energy company would spend up to $45 million this financial year to provide support for customers in need.

This is in addition to the $30 million in payments provided last financial year. 

"One of our key areas of focus is supporting the most vulnerable members of our community who can least afford price increases," he told the hearing on Tuesday.

"Our hardship program offers flexible payment options, tailored bill relief, home energy audits, energy efficiency advice, referrals to financial counselling services, and access to government grants and concessions."

Customers on Origin's hardship programs are protected from disconnection, Mr O'Grady said.

AGL Energy executive general manager Suzanne Falvi said the provider had set aside at least $70 million over the next two years to help improve affordability for people struggling to pay their bills.

"The funding provides both direct and indirect support to customers, and includes targeted payment matching and debt relief for eligible customers experiencing hardship to assist them," she said.

Ms Falvi said the company was also developing a fund to install solar panels for eligible customers in a bid to reduce their energy bills.

Cost of living committee chair and Liberal senator Jane Hume said Australians were struggling to cope.

"The fact that there are now more Australians on hardship programs than during the peak of the pandemic and the fact that charities are now servicing dual income households, show that Australians are not better off under Labor," she said. 

Foodbank WA chief executive Kate O'Hara said the charity was experiencing "unprecedented demand", with web searches related to food relief increasing by 315 per cent. 

Ms O'Hara said the number of average daily customers across the network had grown from 510 to 738 a day.

"The majority of our customers are households we never expected to support," she said.

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