THE NSW Energy and Water Ombudsman will investigate Essential Energy’s meter reading activities in Wagga after an outpouring of community frustration.
In a major win for customers at the receiving end of estimated billing blow-outs, the Ombudsman, Janine Young, said she needed to be satisfied the network owner was taking reasonable steps to access the power box.
It comes after Saturday’s front-page story that revealed a Wagga man had been overcharged by 241 per cent on his quarterly electricity bill – an estimated figure because a meter reader was unable to open an unlocked gate.
The Daily Advertiser can today also reveal Essential Energy outsourced its meter reading capabilities to a contractor, Skilltech, at the start of last year.
A Skilltech spokesman said his understanding was there was no reduced service overall, but there had been “some delays” in meter readers reaching all routes since the tenure start date in September.
The energy watchdog said the concern expressed by Wagga people over billing warranted an official probe.
“This is something I will need to look into a bit further,” Ms Young said. “I’ll be getting in touch with the network company for Wagga to determine whether the number of estimated bills has increased and why. From what I can gather, it’s something people are very concerned about.”
Ms Young said legislation made it compulsory for electricity companies to take an actual read of meters every 12 months.
She said, ideally, the network owner should visit the property every quarter.
“There is really no reason why a reader cannot get there at least once a year,” Ms Young said. “They should be trying really hard and making every possible endeavour.
“Estimated reads are not only very frustrating for the customer, but the retailer as well.”
Ms Young said underestimating an account meant the retailer was forced to add the outstanding amount on a later bill.
“That large catch-up bill could be quite substantial and could come at a time when the customer can’t afford it,” she said. “The retailer has to then work out a payment plan.”
Essential Energy refused to answer whether estimated billing had increased over the past five years. The company conceded there would be a “transition” to Skilltech, but the change would bring $15 million in savings to customers each year.