Are you paying too much for your energy? If you haven't reviewed your energy plan recently, chances are the answer is yes.
Most Australians count electricity bills among their main concerns when it comes to expenses, and that's only going to get worse with electricity costs up by 63% over the last decade.
The value of energy deals often erodes over time as discount periods end or tariffs are increased.
If you live in:
ACT – Yes, but there's little variation in pricing as this is a regulated market
NSW – Yes
NT – Yes, there are now two retailers, Jacana Energy and Rimfire Energy, but there's little variation in pricing as this is a regulated market
Qld – Yes, if you live in South-East Queensland
SA – Yes
Tas – Yes, there are now two retailers, Aurora Energy and 1st Energy, but there's little variation in pricing as this is a regulated market
Vic – Yes
WA – Yes, in some places, but there's little variation in pricing as this is a regulated market.
Have a look at a past bill and check the daily supply charges and tariffs. And don't be surprised if you find it all confusing – electricity bills are notoriously hard to understand and compare!
Your tariffs will be either:
- a single flat rate at all times
- a multi-flat or block tariff, which includes stepped pricing that varies with the amount you use.
- flexible or time-of-use tariff where prices vary based on the time of use
- a lower price at night (called a controlled load) for heating hot water, for example, with a single flat rate for everything else. (This is an off-peak rate that's linked to a specific appliance that only works at off-peak times.)
You'll be charged in one of these ways, depending on what type of meter you have. For time-of-use or flexible tariffs you need to have a smart 'time-of-use' meter. If you have an older 'accumulation' meter you'll be on a flat or block tariff.
Retailers also apply a daily supply charge, irrespective of your level of energy use, and there may also be a discount applied to the bill. Solar owners should also have a feed-in tariff for the energy they export to the grid.
Speak to your energy retailer and ask them to tell you what plan you're on. Then tell them you're looking for a better deal and ask these questions:
- What kind of incentives or deal can you offer me to stay with your company?
- Is the incentive or discount conditional, like paying on time?
- Is the incentive for the life of the contract or does it end after a period of time? If so, what happens then?
- Does the discount incentive cover the whole bill or just the electricity usage portion?
- Which plan has the lowest tariff and usage rates?
- Are there exit fees on my plan or the plan you are offering me?
Your retailer may offer you a plan with a discount but don't assume it's a better deal for you. Discounts can hide high tariff and usage rates or, if they have conditions attached, they can end up costing you a lot more if you don't meet the conditions.
Before committing to any new offer from your current retailer, it's worth taking a few more steps to find a better deal.
TIP: Be cautious when using heavily promoted commercial energy bill comparison sites. These sites may not consider every plan offered in the market and often exclude or promote deals based on whether they earn a commission from the energy retailer.
If you'd rather find a better plan yourself, note that electricity retailers have to publish a 'fact sheet' for every retail plan they offer. These are available on energymadeeasy.gov.au and outline the rates and conditions of each offer and any additional fees that they charge. If you're in Victoria, check out the Government comparison site Victorian Energy Compare.
There's a lot of variation between plans offered based on the geographical location of the property and the electricity distributor that services the area.
When comparing deals, consider:
- The rate per kWh.
- Fixed supply charges.
- Discounts: do these apply to the whole bill (fixed supply charges and usage charges) OR for usage only? This can make a big difference to the savings.
- Late fees if your don't pay your bill on time – pay-on-time discounts are common on many plans. Consider establishing a direct debit payment, otherwise you'll be paying substantially more.
- Billing – how often do you receive your bill and how can you pay?
- Other fees – for example, fees for receiving paper bills or for paying with a credit card
- Length of contract – are there any exit fees or moving home fees applicable? Many retail electricity plans offer a 12-month contract period, but very few will fix electricity rates for this period. Generally the contract will lock in a percentage discount over your contract period. Some retailers won't honour discounts on their last bill if you switch away from them before the end of the contract period.
- Any other terms and conditions.
- Your gas plan – if you have mains gas, find out whether it's cheaper to move both your electricity and gas to the same retailer. Many retailers offer you an extra discount for doing this, but it pays to check if their underlying rates are actually competitive.
When evaluating other plans online, also consider the following:
- Take a look at the level of savings associated with each plan. Note that often these estimates assume that you pay your bill on time and that you pay by a certain payment method, such as direct debit.
- The level of savings associated with each plan is typically for the first year only and may include, for example, a $50 credit on your first bill. So if the plan is for more than one year, the savings would not be the same for subsequent years.
- Check the surcharge for GreenPower.
- If you find a better deal, contact your current provider and see if they'll match it or do better. If they can't, then it's a good time to re-check any fees that would apply if you leave.
- If you decide you want to switch, you can contact the new retailer directly.
- The switching process can take 1-3 months to complete, depending on your retailer, distributor and where you are in the billing cycle. It's generally quicker if you have a smart meter installed.
- Your electricity or gas supply won't be interrupted when you change contracts or move to a different retailer.
If you're switching electricity plans, you have a five to 10 business day cooling off period which begins on the date you receive information about the energy contract. (Ten days apply in NSW, SA, Vic and SE Qld). You can change your mind and cancel the contract within this period.
If you're being door-knocked or called by telemarketers, consider the following:
- Don't feel pressured to make a decision on the spot, they want your business.
- Be explicit on the phone when discussing energy deals with marketers or retailers so they don't switch you over without your consent.
- For door-knockers, ask to see their identification. By law, they have to show you. If you ask them to leave, they must leave immediately.
- There have been reports of salespeople saying that "your supplier won't change". This isn't true. The distributor (i.e. the poles and wires) that supplies your electricity won't change but your retailer (the one that bills you) will change.
- If you don't like people knocking on your door, you can get a 'Do not knock' sticker to put out the front of your house.
- If you don't want to be contacted by telemarketers, you can register with the Australian Government's Do Not Call Register online or by calling 1300 792 958.
Fixed-term contracts and unilateral price variation
Consumer rights groups have long been trying to put a stop to unilateral price variation – the practice of energy retailers changing the price of energy (make that 'raising' the price) in fixed-term contracts in the middle of the contract.
Retailers claim it's necessary because their costs can go up during the duration of the contract, and so far regulators have sided with the retailers on the premise that ending unilateral variation would lead to higher prices for consumers.
But unilateral variation looks like an unfair contract term to us, so the battle continues. With no end in sight, it's something to consider as it means that the price of gas or electricity in effect when you signed a contract can – and probably will – go up.
There has been one small consumer win thanks to the efforts of consumer groups: retailers now have to make it more clear in the contract wording that prices can change, and they must communicate any price changes more proactively rather than leaving customers to read the details on their next bill.
- If you have an old electric storage hot water system, consider your alternative hot water system options now before it goes. Water heating can account for a quarter of typical household energy use and you may find a system that saves energy and money and is kinder to the environment.
- If you have a pool pump or under-floor heating, find out whether you can get it linked to a 'controlled load' tariff and the level of potential savings.
- If you're on a time-of-use plan, when buying your next dishwasher or washing machine consider buying one with a delayed start option so you can set it to run in off-peak periods when energy is cheap. It might also be worth getting a smart meter.
What about solar?
If you have solar panels, check out our articles on solar.