Power disconnection culprits named

The electricity regulator has named two companies that failed to warn customers on life support that their power would be cut off and identified others which broke the rules around unfair disconnections.

Energex and TasNetworks, which run electricity distribution systems in south-east Queensland and Tasmania, breached their obligations to issue warnings about planned blackouts on seven occasions in the past year.

The Australian Energy Regulator (AER) fined the companies $20,000 for each breach.

In each case, the companies were obliged to warn customers on life support four days in advance that their electricity supply would be interrupted.

AER said the companies were aware of those customers’ special requirements, but failed to let them know of planned interruptions.

Energex was fined over planned blackouts on 22 November, 2017; 2 February 2018 and 20 March 2018.

The distributor, which is a subsidiary of a Queensland Government-owned electricity company, has been the worst repeat offender in recent years.

In 2017, it was found to have infringed the rules three times and in 2016 four times.

No other network has been caught out switching power off to vulnerable customers three years in a row.

TasNetworks’ recent breaches all occurred in 2017, on 27 June, 28 August, 25 September and 27 November. It was also fined for three breaches in the previous year.

In other reports of non-compliance, AER released results of audits across several electricity retailers that showed which had failed to protect customers from wrongful disconnections.

The independent auditor, Protiviti, found the least compliant retailer was AGL Energy and the one with the fairest disconnection rules was Simply Energy.

AER said: “The auditor found that there were instances where it could not verify AGL had made best endeavours to contact the customer after the disconnection warning notice, and instances where it could not verify AGL offered the customer two payment plans within the 12-month period prior to disconnection for non-payment.”

Lumo Energy, Ergon Energy Queensland and Alinta Energy were found to have generally satisfactory policies in place before disconnections were carried out.

In its defence, AGL told the regulator “it believes it satisfies the requirement around ‘best endeavours’ by making the following attempts to contact a customer post the disconnection warning notice: by telephone, where phone contact has not been successful, by registered letter or by SMS where a mobile number has been provided by the customer”.

Meanwhile, the AER said it had power companies “in its sights” over failures to warn vulnerable customers about upcoming outages.

 “Customers relying on life support equipment are particularly vulnerable and any unexpected loss of supply can have dangerous, and even fatal consequences,” AER Paula Conboy said.  

“It is imperative that these customers receive advanced notice of any planned interruption to their energy supply, so they can make alternative plans. This reduces any risk of harm occurring or more serious consequences for those customers.”

Energex will now be required to undergo an audit to ensure it has adequate systems and processes in place to manage outages that affect life support systems.

TasNetworks has told AER that it will introduce new systems to eliminate potential sources of errors.

From February 2019 new rules will strengthen protections for customers who need life support equipment. These new rules are designed to allocate responsibilities clearly and appropriately between retailers and distributors and improve the accuracy of life support registers.

Do you or anyone you know rely on life support equipment at home? If so and your electricity was cut off unexpectedly, can you share what happened? Do you have any other stories about power companies behaving badly?

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