Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Energy firms face backlash - Record numbers of complaints

Sunday Mail Adelaide
Sunday 22/11/2009 Page: 14

RECORD levels of complaints about energy retailers - including cases of incorrectly disconnecting customers' power and overcharging - have been made to the industry watchdog. The Energy Ombudsman's annual report released during the week showed a spike in complaints from 5300 to 8600 last financial year - an increase of 62%.

Complaints about disconnections soared from 297 to 464 last financial year while those involving billing errors doubled to 4141. These included one woman who had her power cut off on a 40C day because she had not paid her neighbour's bill (the wrong meter was read by the retailer).

Other cases investigated by the Ombudsman included:
  • A man who had his power disconnected despite paying his bills and not receiving a disconnection warning from his retailer.
  • A woman whose signature was forged on a contract to switch retailers by a door-to-door salesperson.
  • A woman who received a $200 bill for an unoccupied property based on an incorrect "estimated" power use by the retailer.

The industry's history-making poor performance has led to calls for retailers to be hit with hefty fines when failing to provide adequate service to the state's 778,000 electricity and 369,000 gas customers. Welfare agency Uniting Care Wesley spokesman Mark Henley said it was bad enough residents were hit with ever-increasing power prices let alone having to deal with rising levels of poor service within the industry.

"It's great people are using the Ombudsman to resolve problems but a lot of them shouldn't be occurring in the first place," Mr Henley said. "The retailers have a responsibility to make sure they don't get it wrong in the first place and maybe we need to have the state regulator look at increasing the penalties for retailers who don't provide a good service."

Ombudsman Sandro Canale said the office had been flooded with a "huge increase in workload" with expenses jumping $167,000 last financial year to $1.2 million. He said many of the matters reported to his office "should have been resolved by the provider without our intervention".

"I would urge any energy company embarking on change programs to clearly identify areas of potential impact to consumers and ensure that it is able to respond to issues in a timely fashion to minimise any inconvenience to customers," he said. According to the Ombudsman's report, Origin Energy attracted the most complaints per customer involving electricity and AGL the most per customer involving gas.

Dr Brad Page is one of 1600 people with solar panels who has had to seek the Ombudsman's help in dealing with energy retailers' billing mistakes. For Dr Page it's a problem that has left him frustrated and angry about retailers' "contempt" for their customers. First, Origin Energy wasn't crediting him for the solar energy he was feeding back to into the power network so he switched to TRUEnergy, which sent him an offer of 20c/kW for the power his panels generated, which he took up.

However, TRUEnergy then told him it had made a mistake and was only going to pay him 6c/kW. Dr Page said: "The trouble with these firms is they are massive companies dealing with so many accounts they just don't care about individuals. "If you are a day late with payment they penalise you so if they waste a customer's time, they too should be made to pay." Dr Page is trying to organise a cooperative of thousands of solar panel owners to bargain for a better deal from energy retailers for the green power they generate.