Lights out as families battle rising electricity bills

POSTED May 29, 2012

FAMILIES disconnected from power are surviving without electricity for up to a month with energy companies refusing to grant bill extensions.

Many families are having their electricity cut off because they cannot afford to pay soaring power bills. Picture: The Courier Mail

The Daily Telegraph

Others are forced to plug an extension cord into a neighbour's power outlet to survive.

The cases are among hundreds inundating the NSW Energy and Water Ombudsman (EWON), which has seen a 21 per cent spike in complaints from customers denied payment extensions.

The rise comes despite power companies' claims they were providing payment plans for struggling householders.

The new figures were released by NSW Energy and Water Ombudsman, Clare Petre, who is calling for an urgent national debate on the impact of power prices.

"It is a major dilemma for the future," she said.

"We've called for a national debate involving the retailers, networks, government, financial counsellors on this issue.

"Most people are only disconnected for a day or two, but sometimes it can be for a week or a even a month.

"Sometimes people make arrangements like going to relatives for showers or running an extension cord to the neighbours just to keep the fridge and light on."

The latest EWON Complaint Statistics report shows the number of customers seeking help from the utility watchdog about a high or disputed electricity, gas or water bill jumped from 2203 to 2708 in the past six months -- up by 23pc. With power bills to rise by up to 19.2pc on July 1, the watchdog predicted complaints to triple from families facing disconnection.

New national laws set to come into effect on July 1 will stop power and gas companies from disconnecting households with amounts owing of less than $300 - on the condition they will pay up.

While EWON welcomes the move, Ms Petre believes this will not solve the problem of low-income families being unable to stay on top of their ever-increasing power bills.

She said the biggest problem was that part of the bill was a fixed charge not influenced by usage and paid for power company network costs.

Ms Petre's suggested options include reducing fixed charges for low-income families, no-interest loan schemes and contributions from network operators, as well as retailers.

"The networks are driving the increases in the main, and we think they should make some sort of contribution, either in kind or in cash.

More than 930 EWON complaints were about disconnection for non-payment, up from 884 in the previous six months.

"Based on current complaint levels, we are projecting an increase of more than 30 per cent in 2011-12 compared to 2010-11," the report said.

AGL and Origin, two of the biggest of NSW's 16 energy retailers, told The Sunday Telegraph customers facing financial difficulties were encouraged to make contact to discuss their options.