To say it’s been an interesting few months for the energy sector would be an understatement. I don’t think any of us could have predicted wholesale energy and gas markets would be capped as price thresholds were exceeded. The flow on effect has forced four smaller retailers – EWON members – to exit the market after the AER took Retailer of Last Resort action, while other retailers have urged their customers to shop around for a better deal. In another extraordinary move, the Australian Energy Market Operator suspended the electricity market to manage supply shortages – an intervention that hasn’t happened since the market started in 1998. 

Combined with higher energy and gas bills, these conditions have been unsettling for customers. We saw complaints increase in late June and early July and, while they have plateaued, we anticipate a further increase from both energy and water customers when their winter bills arrive. Our Dispute Resolution Team is prepared and ready to work with customers and EWON members to ensure affordability programs are on offer to those requiring assistance. 

Throughout this, our policy work continues. Our submission to IPART’s review of Hunter Water’s operating licence focused on consumer protections and options for external dispute resolution. Individual, member focused submissions only occur in the water sector and are drawn from that member’s complaint data. Only 4% of EWON complaints come from water customers, reflecting the lower cost of water and water members’ focus on first time resolution. However, the complaints we receive can be complex, as outlined in this quarterly report. EWON now has 14 water members: Sydney Water, Hunter Water, Shoalhaven Water, Water NSW, Essential Water, and nine Water Industry Competition Act Members. The latter are small scale private water service providers whose customers generally live in a specific development. Additionally, we receive complaints from water customers whose Council is their provider and we refer these customers to their Council or the NSW Ombudsman.  

Off the back of our submission and two earlier Spotlight On reports into embedded networks, EWON’s Policy Team recently briefed the NSW Parliament Legislative Assembly Committee on Law and Safety which is conducting a review into the operation of embedded networks in NSW. I will be appearing before the Committee, invited as an expert witness to share complaints-based evidence of gaps in consumer protection and to recommend solutions to close those gaps. The sale of centralised hot water is a key issue for this Committee, as well as customers being charged high prices due to lack of access to competition. 

In addition to our regular sections on water, embedded networks and behind-the-meter electricity complaints, this issue of EWON Insights looks at the issues faced by small businesses in a post-lockdown world. We also explore the recently introduced rules allowing remote connection for premises with digital meters, and how this has affected customers. 

Janine Young
Energy & Water Ombudsman NSW