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Snap a photo of your meter: Government bid to cut estimated energy bills

Debbie Cuthbertson / The Sydney Morning Herald / 28 March

Main Image: Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg in Federal Parliament this week. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Australian energy companies could face fines for sending their customers “grossly inaccurate” bills based on estimates rather than usage, under a proposal to be announced by Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg.

The federal government will ask the Australian Energy Market Commission to amend the National Energy Rules so that all customers can submit a photograph of their meter data.

Some companies, including AGL, already allow customers to submit manual meter readings online or via an app in cases where their meter cannot be read in time for their next bill. This proposal would extend that opportunity to all energy providers, Mr. Frydenberg said.

“In cases where a customer receives an estimated bill from their retailer, the proposal will allow them to have it replaced with a more accurate bill based on their reading.

“[It] also introduces an obligation on retailers to ensure a bill is not based on an estimate that is grossly inaccurate and asks the AEMC to consider the imposition of penalties for breaches of the estimation rules.

“These changes will improve the accuracy of billing and reduce the risk of consumers being exposed to the financial shock of an inaccurately estimated bill.”

Thursday’s announcement follows a series of stories by The Age over the past six months exposing excessive estimated bills charged to residential customers and small businesses for gas and electricity.

This month The Age revealed AGL customer Paul Thompson had received an estimated gas bill of $8000 for his Fitzroy bar, for about $84 worth of usage.

Mr Thompson said he got repeated estimated bills over about 22 months despite offering to open his business early and make appointments so the meter could be read.  Since the story ran he has received a revised bill: he is now $31 in credit.

In October The Age reported a number of cases in which customers received inflated estimated bills.

Origin Energy sent Sam Borazio, who runs a coin laundry in Bentleigh, an estimated bill for about $1500 after it said his meter could not be accessed (even though his business is open 16 hours a day, and the meter sits just inside the front door).

Mr Borazio’s bill was revised down to just $4 once it was reissued based on his usage.

Mr Frydenberg’s announcement follows moves by the federal government requiring companies to notify customers when energy discounts are about to cease and before prices change and to introduce deadlines for meter installations.

In the past year, the Victorian government has also introduced improved energy billing standards, implementing nine of 11 recommendations by former Labor minister John Thwaites in his review of the state’s electricity and gas retail markets.

In recent weeks Victoria’s Energy Minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, said the government would further analyse the remaining two recommendations – introducing a no-frills basic service offer and abolishing standing offers.

While bills are issued by energy retailers, energy distributors are responsible for reading meters and passing information to the retailer for billing purposes.

Last year AGL launched proceedings in the NSW Supreme Court against Jemena, which manages the NSW gas distribution network, alleging it failed to provide timely meter readings.

The Energy Retail Code states that retailers are obligated to base each bill sent to a customer on an actual meter reading.  If they are unable to do so, due to access issues, the retailer must use its “best endeavors” to obtain an actual meter reading at least once every 12 months.

The code states that customers must also provide safe and unhindered access to their meter.

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