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, which is not surprising considering that electricity costs have skyrocketed over the last decade.
There are many reasons why switching to a new provider may be a good idea.
Why switch electricity retailers?
For one, the value of energy deals often erodes over time as benefit periods end and your prices go up.
Then there's the matter of retailer bait and switch tactics, where large discounts lure you in and then retailers increase underlying prices without warning (Sumo and Globird, in particular, have been caught out doing this in the past).
While energy prices have moved slightly downward in recent years and are expected to drop further, keeping the lights on and the gas flowing will remain an expensive prospect for most households for the foreseeable future.
Whatever the case, your energy bill is something you really want to pay attention to – unless you enjoy paying more than you have to.
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 two retailers, Jacana Energy and Rimfire Energy, but there's little variation in pricing as this is a regulated market
Qld – Only if you live in South-East Queensland
SA – Yes
Tas – Yes, there are three retailers, Aurora Energy, 1st Energy, and Future X, 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.
1. Find out what plan you're on now
Have a look at a past bill and check the daily supply charges and general usage rates. And don't be surprised if you find it all confusing – electricity bills are notoriously hard to understand and compare!
You'll either be on:
- a single flat general usage rate at all times
- a multi-flat or block general usage rate, which includes stepped pricing that varies with the amount you use
- flexible or time-of-usage rate where prices vary based on the time of use
If you're on a general usage or time-of-usage rate, you may also have a 'controlled load' rate linked to a specific appliance (such as a hot water system) that only works at off-peak times.
You'll be charged in one of these ways, depending on what type of meter you have:
- If you have a smart meter: You can be on a flat tariff, block tariff, or a time-of-use (or flexible) tariff
- If you have an 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.
2. Ring your retailer and ask what they'll offer you to stay
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?
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 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.
3. Compare your current offer with other plans
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.
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 you 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.
CHOICE tip: Estimated savings are generally based on you paying your bill on time and by a certain method, such as direct debit. Savings are also 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 a year, don't count on those savings to continue.
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 one to three 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 ten business day cooling off period which begins on the date you receive information about the energy contract. You can change your mind and cancel the contract within this period.
If you're being door-knocked or called by telemarketers:
- Don't feel pressured to make a decision on the spot.
- 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've been reports of salespeople saying that "your supplier won't change" when you switch plans. 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.
Can retailers raise the price mid-contract?
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.