When I was a student, I preferred to shiver and chatter my teeth when I visited my friends’ flats instead of asking them to turn the heater on. 

It felt criminal to make them pay a higher energy bill for my small comforts. 

Then, in my third year of uni, I got sick five months in a row because I was renting in an old flat that seemed to usher in the cold and bleed warmth. 

That experience changed how I viewed heaters and staying warm. It wasn’t a small comfort - it was a way of keeping healthy.

‘Putting a jersey on isn’t gonna cut it for the majority of people’

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends maintaining an indoor temperature of at least 18C in winter

But researcher Kimberly O’Sullivan says the poor quality of New Zealand’s housing stock means “the temperature inside very closely reflects the temperature outside”. 

O’Sullivan is a senior research fellow at the University of Otago who looks into how housing and energy use affect health and wellbeing. 

Kimberly O’Sullivan researches how housing and energy use affect health and wellbeing. Photo: John O’Sullivan. 

New Zealand has a large problem with energy poverty, O’Sullivan says. 

She says energy poverty is “not being able to afford or access enough energy at home to meet your needs” with ‘your needs’ including maintaining WHO’s standards. 

It can especially affect young New Zealanders whose housing situations, job security and finances are more precarious, O’Sullivan says. 

“It used to be that being a student in Dunedin and shivering, like I did, was a rite of passage… but I kind of feel like maybe we've moved past that,” O’Sullivan says. 

“People are starting to realise that we've got quite a lot of research saying this isn't great for anyone's health and wellbeing. And just putting a jersey on isn't gonna cut it for the majority of people to keep them healthy.” 

In Wellington, a 2020 study found it cost $58 per month to heat one child’s bedroom in the wintertime. 

When O’Sullivan asks people if they would use more heating if it was more affordable, most say yes.

Renters are four to six times more likely to experience energy hardship

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) first annual report into energy hardship was released last year and it covered the period between July 2012 and June 2022. 

It found more than 110,000 households, which included a third of low-income households, could not afford to keep their homes adequately warm. 

Many New Zealand regions with lower incomes are also regions that need a lot of infrastructure to provide electricity so power costs more there. 

Lower income towns like Kerikeri, Westport and Balclutha were paying 29-36% above New Zealand’s average electricity price in 2021, Consumer NZ found. 

MBIE also found renters were four to six times more likely to experience energy hardship. 

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (MHUD) says nearly 600,000 households rent in New Zealand.

A ministry spokesperson says looking at the condition of New Zealand’s housing stock, there is consistent evidence that, on average, rental properties – generally older ones – are in the worst condition.

Owner-occupied houses are in the best condition, the spokesperson says. 

What’s being done to help people afford heating? 

MBIE says it supports New Zealanders experiencing energy hardship in multiple ways. 

MBIE manager of energy use policy Scott Russell says that includes the Support for Energy Education in Communities Programme which “provides energy advice and low-cost devices to households”.

“The programme has reached over 20,000 households with reported annual energy savings of $180 to $230 per household.”

There’s also the Community Renewable Energy Fund where MBIE is currently investing $6.5 million to install solar power systems on key community buildings impacted by the severe weather events in 2023, Russell says. 

MHUD says the healthy homes standards aim to close the quality gap between rental properties and owner-occupied homes.

Seventy-nine percent of landlords who completed their recent survey said they have either taken action to comply with the healthy homes standards or plan to, according to the 2024 Healthy Homes Guarantee Act Monitoring Topline Report. 

For those who can afford heating, what are other barriers that get in the way? 

Researcher Kimberly O’Sullivan says part of it is not being able to pay-as-we-go for our energy usage.

She compares paying for energy to paying for food — you don’t go to the supermarket and come out with a trolley full of stuff only to get the bill weeks later.

Unless you’re someone who very carefully monitors their energy use, most of us only find out what heating has cost us at the end of the month, which can feel daunting. 

Some people feel like even if they do pour money into heating, it still might not be enough to make their house warm, O’Sullivan says. 

They might also rationalise that spending money to instead be warm at the pub might be better for their mental wellbeing, she says. 

She says it’s also about a lack of information. 

If you go to rent a house, you might struggle to find information about how much it will cost to power that house, O’Sullivan says. 

The UK has an energy performance certificate which grades houses between an A and an G. 

While it is not a perfect system, it gives renters some idea of what they can expect to pay for energy, she says. 

O’Sullivan says housing and health researchers like herself have been calling for a similar rating system in New Zealand so they can understand how many pass-grade homes there are in the country which could help renters make more informed choices about where they want to live. 

MBIE’s manager of building performance and engineering Dave Gittings says: “MBIE is exploring options for energy efficiency initiatives that will not impose unreasonable upfront costs onto households.”

What you can do if you experience energy hardship 

If you already receive a benefit payment of some kind, you might be eligible for the Winter Energy Payment, provided through the Ministry of Social Development, which is an automatic payment of $450-$700 across five months. 

And if you’re currently experiencing hardship or getting disconnection notices, O’Sullivan recommends getting in touch with your energy provider. 

There are some things that retailers can do to help make payment arrangements or look at whether you're on the right to plan for you, and that might help a bit to ease things,” she says. 

More stories: 

How the proposed sick leave changes could impact you

The Government is proposing changes to the Holidays Act.

The ins and outs of sex etiquette in a flat

It can be a sticky situation.

How non-Māori learning te reo helps revitalise it

“I am opposed to the idea that only Māori should be part of the revitalisation.”