Energy consumers are getting used to dancing with their provider each year to not be ripped off. But that’s no easy waltz. The twists and turns can make anyone dizzy. Sandi Logan knows the score.
Comparing your current energy plan (i.e. cost of supply, consumption and any discounts) across a multitude of competing providers – subject of course to where in Australia you live – is, in theory, supposed to be straightforward when logging onto Energy Made Easy. It’s a comparison site provided by the Australian Energy Regulator (AER).
And it can be easy until you start asking questions of, in my recent experience, one’s existing supplier, expecting their staff are fully across the plans, the competing offers and the finer details of kilowatt hours and feed-in tariffs!
When I challenged my provider – after consulting the comparison site – I was met first with misinformation, then disinformation
But more on that later.
As context for the cost to Australians of their electricity, the second quarter in 2023 has shown wholesale electricity prices stabilising according to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), with the average megawatt hour cost on the national electricity market down almost 60% compared with a year ago. Nonetheless, prices are still increasing, compared to the first quarter, although wholesale prices are not necessarily reflected in what you, the consumer, pays.
AEMO executive general manager Violette Mouchaileh says less volatile market conditions, improved generation availability and higher renewable output has put downward pressure on wholesale electricity prices.
“By region, quarterly average prices ranged from $64/MWh in Tasmania to $137/MWh in New South Wales, with Victoria, South Australia and Queensland averaging $89/MWh, $124/MWh and $126/MWh, respectively,” she said.
Those wholesale prices don’t mean much to consumers, because electricity retailers’ charges vary due to a range of factors, including: generation costs (renewables are generally cheaper to run but their role in each state/territory’s power mix varies), network costs (poles and wires cost a motza to build, expand and maintain), retailers’ mark-up, supply charges (a daily fee consumers pay for the privilege of being connected to the grid), tariff type (peak, off-peak and shoulder periods are just some of the types) and finally, discounts (which consumers must negotiate).
So back to how challenging it can be getting the best deal.
Comparison (and complaint) tools
The regulator’s website says: “Comparison tools help you to compare the price of different energy plans and to make an informed decision. Usually, you enter information about where you live and your current energy usage into the website and it will use this to identify and compare the prices of different energy plans.”
When I challenged my existing provider – after consulting the AER comparison site – I was met first with misinformation, then disinformation, and finally lies – the latter repeated four times. Once escalated to a supervisor, and then to corporate headquarters, the matter took on a whole new life of its own.
Just to ensure no weasel words crept into the provider’s “explanation”, I had a transcript of what was said in my initial online exchange and had lodged a formal complaint with the Energy and Water Ombudsman NSW (EWON) as insurance.
The ombudsman has processed between 15,000 – 27,000 complaints annually in the last decade, most of them about electricity providers. Funded by the sector itself, EWON’s salaries budget exceeds $8 million annually to monitor more than 350 members’ operations.
They undertake to respond to a consumer’s complaint within 28 days and will follow-up with the provider if there has been no resolution. One of EWON’s biggest cases was a recent referral to the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) about Origin Energy.
Following an AER investigation, the Federal Court ordered Origin Energy to pay a $17 million penalty for breaching laws and regulations designed to protect customers in financial difficulty,
EWON says on its website.
Meanwhile, it took my energy provider (Energy Australia) less than a week to concede their customer consultant had got it wrong, and they were prepared to not only stand by the original offer made online (which subsequently had been withdrawn when it came to signing the “deal”), but also to increase the discount from 11 to 16%, and offer an additional financial compensation.
“We have nearly 1000 employees working in customer care, across Australia such as in Geelong and some in Manila,” my provider’s media spokesperson told me “and all staff receive comprehensive training that begins with a four-week classroom training course.
“There is continual refresher training on key topics throughout their career. This year, we introduced an additional training program, which includes safety, wellbeing and handling any customer calls that may be racist, rude, discriminatory or aggressive,” she added.
The lessons I’ve learned from this “leave it to the market forces” orthodoxy are:
- The first offer is just that; the first of several, so don’t settle for it as your default or their best offer. It’s what the energy providers are expecting us all to do.
- Speak to a human being – even if it means waiting interminably on hold, listening to elevator music – and interrogate the human about what all the terms, prices and changes mean. It is rocket science for many of us.
- If unhappy with the explanation, ask (politely) to escalate your call to a supervisor.
- Finally, if you feel you’ve been lied to, deceived, cheated or in any way been taken advantage of, go to the relevant energy ombudsman in your state/territory and lodge a complaint.
Power to the People. And keep dancing.
Sandi Logan was a journalist from 1974-1984 (Fairfax, Toronto Sun, ABC-TV & Radio); a DFAT diplomat from 1984-2002, serving in Port Moresby (1988-90), Bonn (1993-96) and Washington DC (1998-2002); a media adviser to federal Liberal and Labor ministers; a communications executive and spokesman for the AFP and the Department of Immigration; and most recently an author of the non-fiction book BETRAYED (Hachette). Originally from Canada, he has also played ice hockey for more than 60 years.