Table 4 – Energy complaint breakdown July - September 2021
||Number of complaints
||% total energy complaints
|Refer to higher level
Digital meter complaints
When new rules around competition in metering were introduced from December 2017, the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) committed to reviewing the changes after three years, to assess how the market had developed. As such, the AEMC initiated a review of the regulatory framework for metering services in December 2020. The AEMC is reviewing whether competition in metering has met expectations, and whether changes are required to improve effectiveness and support the implementation of other electricity sector reforms where metering services will play a role. EWON is participating in a number of AEMC consultations as part of this review, which includes providing information about the kinds of digital meter complaints customers bring to EWON.
Digital meters – tariff changes
Under the current framework, retailers are not required to notify a customer prior to a meter exchange if their electricity tariff will change. EWON receives complaints from customers who are unhappy that they were not advised their tariff may change or given information about their tariff choices. This can cause issues where customers are changed from a flat tariff to a time-of-use tariff and not afforded the opportunity to adjust their usage habits to suit the new tariff or save energy costs. One of the measures under consideration by the AEMC is a rule change that would require the retailer to provide tariff information prior to a meter exchange.
Tariff change not communicated to customer before digital meter upgrade
A customer’s retailer replaced her meter with a digital meter on 7 July 2021. The retailer provided notice of the meter replacement and gave her the opportunity to opt out, but she was happy to get a new meter. Following the meter exchange, she found that her tariff structure had changed from flat rate to time-of-use. She had not been informed beforehand that there would be a change to her tariff structure or the way she was billed. She disputed this with the retailer and it referred her to the terms and conditions of her contract, but when she read them there was no information about a tariff change.
The customer contacted EWON to discuss whether her retailer should have told her of the tariff change prior to the meter exchange. She considered this was important information and she may have decided to opt out if she knew what would happen with her tariff.
The retailer advised EWON that it initiated the meter exchange as an upgrade and not because of any meter fault or issue. The retailer said that the customer had the option to opt out but accepted the meter replacement, which was consistent with the customer’s advice. The retailer advised that it sent a price change letter on 9 July 2021 after the meter exchange took place on 7 July 2021, but was not required to provide prior notice. The retailer offered a customer service credit of $150 for any inconvenience.
EWON discussed the retailer’s advice with the customer. We confirmed that under the current regulatory framework, retailers are not obligated to advise customers that their tariff may change following a meter exchange or whether the customer has a choice of tariff. EWON provided information about the difference between flat and time-of-use tariffs and explained that one is not necessarily “better” than the other as it depends on a customer’s individual usage habits. The customer accepted the advice and the customer service credit of $150 as resolution to her complaint.
Customer signs up to new market plan with a flat tariff the day before his meter is replaced
A customer’s market plan was due to expire so he agreed to a new 12-month market plan with a flat rate tariff on 5 July 2021. He received an email on 7 July confirming the plan, but then received another email on 9 July saying he would be charged higher rates. He contacted his retailer for more information and it said the meter was replaced with a digital meter on 6 July and the tariff was changed to time-of-use automatically.
The customer contacted EWON as he felt the retailer had misled him by not explaining what would happen when his meter was exchanged. He thought his retailer should have given him a choice about what would happen with the tariff and wanted the retailer to honour the original plan. EWON initially referred the complaint back to the retailer at a higher level, but the customer returned as the retailer was unable to resolve the complaint.
EWON spoke to the retailer and it confirmed the meter was replaced on 6 July due to meter family failure. When the retailer quoted the customer on 5 July the tariff was still a flat tariff, but it was updated to a time-of-use tariff when the digital meter was installed as per the network’s guidelines. The customer had agreed to flat rate prices that were 15% off the reference price, and the retailer confirmed his time-of-use prices would still be 15% off the reference price. While there was no obligation for the retailer to advise the customer of the tariff implications of the meter exchange prior to installation, the retailer acknowledged that it was unfortunate timing and a poor customer experience. The retailer considered the customer may be better off on time-of-use rates, but could submit a request to the network to change it back to a flat rate with no guarantee the network would approve it. The retailer also offered a customer service credit of $200.
The customer said he would prefer a flat rate, and the retailer submitted the request to the network. The customer agreed to follow up directly with the retailer regarding the status of the tariff change request, and accepted the credit of $200.
Digital meters – installation delays
Customers have experienced different digital meter installation issues over time. Before the introduction of required installation timeframes from February 2019 onwards, complaints were mostly about retailer installation delays. Since the timeframes were introduced, complaints are generally about more complex installation issues such as installers switching on inverters before digital meters are installed and customers needing to engage a private contractor to complete remediation works prior to installation. More recently, COVID-19 restrictions have also impacted digital meter installations. The AEMC is considering what measures could potentially help with these pain points which are contributing to a slower than expected digital meter rollout.
Following solar panel installation, customer experiences repeated delays in digital meter installation
A customer installed solar panels at his house in February 2021. Since that time there had been four or five unsuccessful attempts by a metering coordinator to install a digital meter on behalf of the retailer. The latest cancellation had occurred on 19 August 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions and the customer was not provided with a new timeframe. He was frustrated as the delays began before the COVID-19 restrictions were in place.
EWON spoke to the customer’s retailer and it provided more information about the earlier unsuccessful attempts. There were issues initially as the customer’s address did not have a street number. The customer provided a rates notice to update the address. As the solar inverter had been turned on prior to the meter upgrade, this caused the meter to run backward and the network issued a meter fault notification as a result. There was also a historical master-subtractive metering set up which needed to be removed, as this type of configuration is not compatible with a solar installation. The meter board also needed to be upgraded to accommodate the new meter. The site was determined to be ready on 3 August 2021 after all of these issues were addressed by the customer, but there were then further delays due to COVID-19 restrictions.
A digital meter was successfully installed on 1 September 2021. While the customer understood that addressing site issues was his responsibility, he considered that the retailer was slow to follow up and did not always provide clear information. The retailer offered $300 credit for the delay and inconvenience. The customer accepted the outcome.
Customer unable to move into home because of delays with a new connection due to COVID-19 restrictions
A customer and his family were waiting to move into a new house in early September 2021 following evacuation from their previous home for reasons not disclosed to EWON. They were due to move into the new house within two weeks but it did not yet have the electricity supply connected. The building had a temporary single-phase electricity supply, but a three-phase meter needed to be installed urgently for them to have household power. His retailer advised that their metering coordinator could not complete the meter installation due to COVID-19 restrictions. The customer contacted EWON on 20 August 2021 as it was unclear when his retailer was going to install the new meter and he was concerned they would have to move into the property without power.
When EWON spoke with the retailer, it advised it had raised a service order to install a three-phase meter on 13 August 2021. The retailer confirmed that the job was put on hold by the metering provider because the customer’s new house was in an area of concern under stricter COVID-19 restrictions than the rest of Sydney. The metering provider was in the process of applying for an exemption to be able to go ahead with the job. In the meantime, the customer engaged a Level 2 electrician who contacted the metering coordinator on 23 August 2021 to discuss options for the job. As the electrician was accredited to perform meter installations on the metering coordinator’s behalf, he arranged to complete the installation on 27 August 2021. The customer considered the complaint to be resolved on the basis that the meter was successfully installed and agreed to contact the retailer directly to discuss suitable electricity plans for their new account.
Digital meters – B2B cooperation
An area of concern for customers are the issues that arise when communication and cooperation breaks down between retailers, metering providers, metering coordinators, meter data providers and networks. The AEMC is reviewing ways the regulatory framework could better support effective and efficient cooperation, contributing to a better customer experience.
Customer experiencing problems having a digital meter installed because of locked meter rooms
A tenant living in an apartment complex was trying to get her meter replaced with a digital meter, as the retailer received a meter fault notification from the network. All electricity meters for residents in the apartment complex were located in a locked meter room but her strata declined to provide access for the metering coordinator to replace the meter. The meter room was fitted with an industry lock, but her retailer said the metering coordinator was unable to obtain the key from the network. The customer contacted EWON as she was unsure of her options.
EWON discussed with the customer that there was not currently any obligation on the network to provide keys to metering coordinators for industry locks. We explained that the regulations place the onus on the customer to provide meter access. We acknowledged that this can cause practical difficulties and frustration in situations like hers where she is a tenant and access involves a strata or building management. We advised it would be reasonable for the strata to facilitate access to allow her to have the meter replaced and receive accurate bills. We advised the customer that she may wish to seek tenancy advice from Tenants NSW or lodge a complaint with Fair Trading NSW under the Strata Management Act. We referred the complaint back to the retailer at a senior level in the first instance to discuss further options.
Inaccurate estimated bills issued due to fault in the digital meter’s modem and a record-keeping error
A customer transferred her electricity supply to her preferred retailer about six-months ago, after having a digital meter installed. She lived alone with only basic appliances and had solar panels installed, so was expecting her electricity bills to be moderate. She received higher than expected bills and queried the bills with her retailer. The retailer said it was not receiving accurate readings from the digital meter and would arrange for the metering coordinator to investigate. She contacted EWON in July 2021 as she considered the retailer was not keeping her updated and she was unsure what was happening.
EWON’s investigation found that the customer transferred to the current retailer on 24 January 2021, and the digital meter had been installed before that on 17 September 2020 by her previous retailer. The customer’s first bill with the current retailer for the period 24 January 2021 to 4 April 2021 included some estimated data due to a meter communication fault. The retailer arranged for the metering coordinator to inspect the meter on 3 March 2021. The metering coordinator replaced a faulty modem and was able to manually access actual data for the previously estimated periods. The investigation also found that the metering coordinator’s record-keeping following the meter exchange was incorrect, as it consolidated three meters but retained six registers in the system. This caused estimated readings for the three obsolete registers in the retailer’s billing system. The retailer arranged for the obsolete registers to be removed from 27 July 2021. The retailer then issued amended billing for the period 24 January 2021 to 4 July 2021, which was based on actual data following the communication and register issues being resolved.
The retailer advised that the balance of the account following the billing amendments was $268, and offered a goodwill credit of $100 for the time taken to identify and resolve the billing issues. The retailer also advised it could provide a payment arrangement for the remaining balance of $168. The customer accepted this as resolution to the complaint, and did not wish to raise a complaint about billing from her previous retailer.
Confusion over information on how to change off peak hot water from Controlled Load 1 to Controlled Load 2
A customer contacted her retailer in June 2021 to request to change her off peak hot water from Controlled Load 1 to Controlled Load 2. Members of the household were at home more due to COVID-19 restrictions, so they kept running out of hot water. Her retailer referred her to the network, but the network referred her back to the retailer. She spoke to her retailer again and this time it said its initial advice was incorrect and it could arrange to change the tariff for a fee of $140. The network service order was scheduled for 14 July but did not go ahead. She contacted her retailer and it said the network cancelled the service order but it would raise another one. She followed up on 19 July and the retailer said it could not provide any further information about what was happening with the service order but would look into the matter. She contacted the network again which said the retailer provided incorrect paperwork and was not following up. She contacted EWON on 20 July as she was frustrated with the conflicting information and lack of progress.
EWON spoke to the retailer which said the network indicated the existing meter could not be reconfigured for Controlled Load 2, and a meter replacement would be required to allow the change. The retailer tried to arrange the meter exchange, but there were multiple delays due to COVID-19 restrictions. A new digital meter was successfully installed on 17 August, which included a register configured for Controlled Load 2. The retailer did not charge any fees for the meter installation or controlled load configuration. The retailer offered a goodwill credit of $150 in recognition of the confusion and delays. The customer accepted this outcome as resolution to the complaint.
AER Standby Statement of Expectations
From 1 July 2021, the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) released a standby Statement of Expectations (SOE) in the event that state jurisdictions are subject to extended stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19. The standby SOE provides additional protections for energy customers impacted by stay-at-home orders or lockdowns. The standby SOE replaced the more detailed SOE which ran from April 2020 to June 2021 covering all National Energy Consumer Framework (NECF) jurisdictions.
The AER requested that EWON report on instances where it appears the standby SOE had not been met. EWON’s ongoing review indicates that retailers are generally meeting the requirements set out in the standby SOE, with some exceptions. EWON has also seen examples of retailers exceeding the expectations of the SOE to offer flexible options to customers in financial difficulty, including small businesses and closed accounts which generally have fewer protections around hardship outside the initial SOE and standby SOE.
Small business in financial difficulty due to COVID-19 restrictions provided with flexible payment options by retailer
A customer owned a hairdressing business that closed in July 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions. She received some government assistance but was still experiencing financial difficulties due to the closure and other personal issues. Her retailer had offered a payment arrangement of $177 per month. She contacted EWON because after agreeing to the payment arrangement, she found she was unable to afford it and was unsure what to do.
When EWON spoke to her retailer, it said the account balance was $752 and usage based on the last twelve months was $177 per month. The balance had only accumulated over the last few bills. The first principle of the standby SOE is for retailers to offer all residential and small business consumers who indicate they may be in financial stress a payment plan or hardship arrangement. However, it is not prescriptive about specifics such as what factors the retailer must take into account in determining a fair and reasonable amount for the customer to pay. The retailer met the standby SOE by offering a payment arrangement and exceeded the minimum requirement because the payment arrangement was based on the fair and reasonable principle of the customer meeting monthly usage only for now. A payment arrangement covering usage only is a more common practice for residential accounts than small business accounts, as there are additional factors to consider for small businesses such as retailers ensuring they are not contributing to businesses trading insolvent. In this instance, the customer’s financial circumstances had the potential to improve depending how COVID-19 restrictions evolved, but paying usage in the meantime would help avoid the debt growing.
Based on the customer’s advice that $177 per month was not affordable, the retailer provided a number of other flexible options including a lower payment arrangement paying below usage for the time being or a payment deferral for a period of time. The retailer also advised that the customer could consider closing the account and reopening it when the business reopened to avoid additional fixed charges in the meantime. The customer advised that she could likely afford $150 a month, and was happy to be referred to the retailer to discuss which options would best suit her circumstances.