Over 40,000 households had their electricity cut off in 2012, almost a third more than in 2011. Some of these households may find it hard to get back on the grid. Electricity companies can refuse to supply customers who've had difficulty paying their power bills and some companies are doing just that.

Electricity and Gas Complaints Commissioner Judi Jones says her office is aware of cases where companies have refused to supply consumers who've had past payment problems. Legally, the companies aren't doing anything wrong because they have no obligation to supply.

Harder line

Electricity companies can pick and choose their customers. But some now appear to be taking a harder line with customers who have outstanding bills.

Electricity companies appear to be taking a harder line with customers who have outstanding bills.
Electricity companies appear to be taking a harder line with customers who have outstanding bills.

Disconnections for non-payment have increased around 280 percent since 2008, after a brief dip following the death of Folole Muliaga in 2007. The Mangere mother, who relied on an oxygen machine to help her breathe, had her power cut off by Mercury Energy after the family fell behind with payments.

Data from the Electricity Authority show that state-owned Genesis Energy, the largest electricity retailer, had the highest number of disconnections in the winter of 2012. The company and its subsidiary Energy Online cut off 4891 customers - just over 1 percent of its domestic customer base - between July and September 2012.

Pulse Utilities, majority-owned by Buller Electricity, had the highest rate of disconnections with 3 percent of its customers cut off.

Company Disconnections - winter 2012 As % of domestic customers
Bosco 750 2.9
Contact Energy 796 0.2
Energy Direct NZ 278 1.9
Energy Online 280 0.4
Genesis Energy 4611 1.1
King Country Energy 97 0.9
Mercury Energy 570 0.2
Meridian Energy 2252 1.2
Nova Energy 11 0.1
Powershop 239 0.5
Pulse Utilities 922 3.0
TrustPower 1034 0.6

Guide to the table
Our data is from the Electricity Authority and shows disconnections for non-payment from July to September 2012.

Companies are listed in alphabetical order. Bosco and Mercury Energy are owned by Mighty River Power; Energy Online is owned by Genesis Energy; Nova Energy is owned by The Todd Corporation, which is also the majority shareholder in King Country Energy; Powershop is owned by Meridian Energy.

Vulnerable customers

Some households facing disconnection are likely to end up on pre-pay meters. These meters can help with budgeting but pre-pay rates are usually more expensive than standard rates and customers can pay hundreds of dollars more each year for their power.

In areas where pre-pay meters aren't available, the customer could be refused supply altogether.

The Electricity Authority has developed guidelines that set out how companies are expected to treat vulnerable consumers, including those on low incomes.

The guidelines are intended to prevent disconnections when a consumer depends on electricity for critical medical support. Consumers who are having financial difficulties can still be disconnected but before this happens the company’s expected to let them know about assistance available from social agencies, and to offer alternative payment arrangements.

But once a customer's been cut off, there's no obligation on companies to take them back. The company can also dictate the terms for repaying any debt. Work and Income has previously dealt with cases where, despite efforts to negotiate a re-payment plan, the company refused to reconnect the power until the outstanding account was paid in full.

With power prices continuing to rise, the number of households having difficulty keeping the lights on is likely to grow. From 2011 to 2012, Work and Income made close to 70,000 grants to help beneficiaries pay for electricity and gas expenses. In just the first 3 months of 2013 another 6248 grants were made.

Our view

  • Electricity is an essential service. Suppliers should be legally required to provide assistance to customers in financial difficulties.
  • Effective regulation of the industry is also needed to help ensure all consumers get a fair deal.

Report by Jessica Wilson.