This morning I had a series of conversations with my local electricity retailer, AGL, which left me wondering whether to find a stray cat to kick or a tall building to jump off.
The background is that yesterday I received an electricity bill for the three months ending 30 November which, nothwithstanding being for a smaller amount of electricity than the three months ended 31 August, was going to cost me more than twice as much. It was covered by a letter from AGL which advised me of a “rate structure adjustment”:
Previously you were charged two different rates, one rate for your peak consumption and one rate for your off-peak consumption. The off-peak rate is only applicable to dedicated off-peak appliances such as off-peak hot water or slab floor heating. As our records indicate that you do not have a dedicated off-peak appliance, you are not eligible for the off-peak rate, therefore we have removed this. The setup has now been amended so that all of your consumption is being billed at the single rate and this was reflected in your previous bill. If you think that you are eligible to receive the off-peak rate as you have a dedicated off-peak appliance, please call us and we will facilitate the change with your Distributor.
The letter acknowledges that “unfortunately you were not notified before the change occurred”.
This letter led to the following five telephone conversations over the course of two hours, a great deal of which was spent on hold:
(1) I rang AGL customer service and told the customer service officer that I did indeed have a dedicated appliance (slab floor heating) and that if she consulted my previous bills she would see that most of my electricity usage was off-peak. She looked up my file and told me that the real problem was that our home did not have the right kind of meter to measure off-peak. I protested that it did and that they had been charging me an off-peak tariff ever since they became the supplier. She said that I had a “two peak meter”, not an off-peak meter, and accordingly AGL had really been undercharging me all this time. If I wanted to be eligible for an off-peak rate I would need to contact the distributor and have an additional meter fitted.
(2) I rang the distributor, United Energy, and was promptly assured by the person I spoke to that our home had the correct meter installed for off-peak pricing and that there was no need for an additional meter. He went on to say that United Energy provides bulk electricity to the retailers at a single price; the structure of their pricing and who is eligible for what is between them and the customer.
(3) I rang AGL customer service again and after several long consultations between the customer service officer and his supervisor, was told that I really did need to have a different kind of meter installed and accordingly he was going to switch me through to the connections department who could advise me on the next steps. I protested that I did not need to speak to the connections department because the distributor had assured me that I had the right equipment installed. He insisted that I really should speak to “Connections” and after a conversation with them, switched me through.
(4) I had a long conversation with a woman in the connections department, who consulted her supervisor and someone else, and finally came back to me to say that I could tear up that bill and they would be sending me a new bill based on the peak/off peak pricing that had applied previously. Problem solved.
(5) Well, not quite. About ten minutes later the woman rang me back to say that everything she had told me was completely wrong and the fact is that AGL is not giving anyone an off-peak rate pending roll-out of the new smart meters – everyone is being charged the peak rate for all electricity use.
Some observations and questions:
(1) Between the letter and the telephone conversations AGL gave me three different reasons for not giving me an off-peak rate: I did not have the right kind of dedicated appliance; I did not have the right kind of meter; well, actually, we don’t give anyone an off-peak rate.
(2) In public policy terms, why would we want to abandon the longstanding practice of encouraging households to shift their electricity demand to the period of lowest demand on the system. I actually asked one of the AGL people to confirm that it would be alright by them for me to reset the clock on my floor heating so that it comes on during the daily peak. “Yes”, she said brightly, “you can have it come on at any time you like”.
(3) There must be something offensive under the Trade Practices Act about changing the published price after the service has been provided. In the new environment of deregulated electricity prices I cannot do anything about the price of future services, but the retrospective hit is pretty rich.
(4) Clearly no-one at AGL customer services has any idea what they are talking about. So much for the wonderful new world of privatised utilities.