Hardship and Debt in the time of Covid

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) has asked for more frequent information from energy retailers regarding customer debt, payment, and hardship plans.

This is in addition to the quarterly and annual reports usually published on the AER website.

The statistics indicate that some retailers have allowed financially distressed customers to merely defer energy debt, rather than setting up a payment plan or hardship plan. Unsurprisingly, debt levels increased in 2019-20, but fewer customers received hardship support, and of those that did, almost half are not meeting their usage costs and are therefore going further into debt.

For those who do receive support from their retailer’s hardship program, the most likely outcome is to eventually be excluded from the program for non-payment. Fewer than one third of hardship customers successfully complete a hardship program and return to normal billing cycles.

Only 38% of South Australian customers on hardship programs were receiving the government energy concession.

SA Power Networks (SAPN) offers a Disconnection for Non-Payment Pre-Visit service to electricity retailers. Retailers can engage SAPN on a fee-for-service basis to visit customers to provide in-person warning of impending disconnection, and encourage engagement with their retailer. SAPN reports that the service leads to 56% of disconnection service orders being cancelled before being carried out.

However, as smart meters are installed at more premises, the role of disconnecting for non-payment will pass from SAPN to other metering coordinators – and disconnecting a smart meter can be done without needing to visit the premises. One metering coordinator, which has responsibility for about half of South Australia’s smart meters, is reportedly planning to start remote disconnection by the end of 2020.

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