COVID-19 lockdowns forced many Canberrans to work from home over the last quarter and, being winter, the heaters were on full bore more often than not, so the latest electricity bill was unlikely to be happy reading.
But it seems many could not begin to comprehend the figure that did arrive.
Bonner resident Julie Okely lives in a house with her son and says her bill for the past 12 weeks was $1,000 more than the same period last year.
“I have never paid $1,700 for electricity in the 10 years that I have been here,” she said.
Ordinarily, Julie runs a hair salon from one of the rooms in the house, but it closed along with every other hair salon in the ACT when lockdown commenced on 26 August.
“I couldn’t run my business so there was no power being used there. My daughter has moved out so we had one less body. The rest of my lifestyle hasn’t changed much in the past few years.”
Julie isn’t alone, with many other Canberrans taking to social media with stories of improbably high power bills over the last quarter.
“My neighbour received a bill for about $3,000, and I’ve lived across from her for years, and nothing has changed in her house,” Julie says.
ActewAGL is the leading energy provider in the ACT, with about 90 per cent market share. They say that in line with public-health restrictions, metre reading was briefly suspended during the first few weeks of lockdown, leading to an increase in bill estimations.
A spokesperson said, “Additionally, we have been informed that meter readers are adhering to adjusted procedures to ensure COVID-safety, including skipping sites where meters are in internal dwellings, behind locked gates or where mandated physical distancing requirements cannot be achieved”.
Estimates consider a number of parameters, the most common being historical usage, which includes usage over the same period the previous year.
The section on the bill that shows the meter reading will also note if it is based on an estimated reading.
“If a customer has received an estimated bill or believe their meter has been read incorrectly, they can request another attempt or submit their own meter reading,” the spokesperson said.
“Alternatively, customers can also choose to wait until the next scheduled meter reading (usually every three months). When ActewAGL next receives an actual meter read, energy bills are adjusted up or down accordingly to ensure customers will only ever pay for the energy they use.”
In line with this, Julie was advised to check how the number in her meter box compared to the estimation she had received. She was told that her bill stood as accurate because the number wasn’t far off the number from a year ago.
Julie was under a discounted arrangement for her electricity, water and gas, but this lapsed without her knowledge in 2016 and was never renewed. Since then, she has been paying retail rates on all her utilities.
Her gas and water bills were around the $200 mark, which she says is completely normal. She has a continuous gas hot water system and a gas cooktop.
Julie has since lodged a complaint regarding what she describes as an “exorbitant and out-of-proportion electricity bill” and requested usage figures from the last 10 years. In the meantime, she’s left to find $1,700.
“Imagine those people living on a pension, or COVID-19 Disaster payment, or a single income. Do they just have to not use electricity? The whole thing is just really bizarre.”
Earlier this year, the ACT’s Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission announced an increase to electricity prices by 11.95 per cent from 1 July 2021. For the average household, this works out at about $5 extra per week.
If you find yourself facing a large, surprising utility bill, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recommends customers first try talking to their electricity company to resolve any issues. If this doesn’t work, follow up with a complaint in writing. If you are still unable to resolve the issue, contact the ombudsman. In the ACT, this is the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT).
ACAT deals with wide a range of energy and water complaints, including customers who believe they have been overcharged.