Alinta Energy has paid penalties totalling more than $380,000 in Victoria for allegedly breaching rules that protect vulnerable energy customers.
The Essential Services Commission (ESC) – Victoria’s independent energy regulator – issued the retailer with penalty notices in December 2022, for failing to provide adequate assistance to customers experiencing financial hardship.
It was alleged that between December 2021 and March 2022, Alinta Energy failed to support 13 residential energy customers who were experiencing financial hardship for reasons such as a death in the family and loss of work due to the pandemic.
The ESC issued nine penalty notices in regards to this, after it was found that Alinta Energy had failed to provide adequate assistance to nine of these customers.
Victorian energy retailers are bound by law to provide assistance in various forms for customers experiencing bill stress or financial hardship.
Kate Symons, ESC Chairperson, said energy was an essential service to Victorians and retailers must follow the correct guidelines to ensure safe supply to customers.
“The commission’s overarching objective is to promote the long-term interests of Victorian consumers and that’s why the Payment Difficulty Framework was established four years ago, mandating specific types of assistance energy retailers must offer residential customers facing or anticipating financial difficulties,” she said.
“Energy is an essential service and businesses delivering energy must follow the rules. There is no excuse for failing to provide the help consumers are legally entitled to, especially those who may be experiencing vulnerability.”
Four of the 13 impacted customers were required to speak to a financial counsellor before they were provided with assistance by Alinta Energy, while the others were said to have received some but not all appropriate forms of assistance, according to the ESC’s release.
Ms Symons said the matter was disappointing as this was not Alinta Energy’s first instance of this kind of misconduct in Victoria.
“Placing unnecessary barriers and prolonging the time it takes for customers to receive assistance can heighten the hardship being experienced, and that’s something the commission won’t tolerate,” she added. “All of these customers were actively engaging with Alinta Energy, and many had explained why they needed assistance.
“Ensuring energy retailers put consumer needs and protections first is one of the commission’s enforcement priorities for 2022-23, and we will take action whenever businesses don’t meet their obligations to support customers.”
In 2021, Alinta Energy paid $1.125 million in penalties for a similar issue regarding vulnerable customers.
Alinta Energy has since waived the accumulated debt of $49,000 for the 13 customers involved in this instance.
Canstar Blue reached out to Alinta Energy for comment but no further details were shared at the time of publication.
What are your rights as an energy customer?
All energy retailers are required by law to have a customer hardship policy in place. These policies follow procedures enforced by the ESC and Australian Energy Regulator (AER) which ensure the continued safe supply of electricity or natural gas to households. Some of the procedures that may be offered by retailers through these policies can include payment plans, financial counselling, tips around home energy efficiency and notifying customers of government rebates that they may be eligible for.
If you are struggling to pay your energy bills, the important thing to remember is not to panic. There are several steps that your retailer is required to take before disconnecting your power entirely:
- Your retailer will send you a bill outlining the due date, alongside the required amount and payment options available to you.
- If you fail to pay the bill before the due date, or don’t comply with the requirements of your payment plan, then your retailer will follow-up with a reminder notice.
- If you have still not paid your bill by the end of the reminder time-frame then your retailer will issue a disconnection warning to you.
- Your retailer is then required to contact you personally, if they haven’t already spoken to you following the issue of the disconnection notice.
If you are experiencing bill stress surrounding your energy bills the best thing you can do is contact your retailer directly and explain your situation.