Annual Report 2020

2019 - 2020

Ombudsman's overview

"COVID-19 continues to play havoc with the lives of many Victorians, many Australians, and many people worldwide. And the work of EWOV is as important as ever."

2019-20 was an extraordinary year. As we prepared our 2019-20 Annual Report, COVID-19 continued to play havoc with the lives of many Victorians, many Australians, and many people worldwide. The EWOV team successfully transitioned to working from home. Adapting our thinking about what our different EWOV roles do, and what that means in a remote environment, we've been able to deliver on our internal and external responsibilities as we would have done from the office environment.

In the full Annual Report, we report our performance against seven strategic objectives agreed with the EWOV Limited Board — Operating model, Industry relationships, Customer and community engagement, Policy and influence, Human capability, Systems and data analysis, and Future scope and capability. The last of these strategic objectives is about ensuring EWOV remains relevant and effective in a changing environment.

To this end, we're building our understanding of the customer experience outside traditional energy systems — and the extent to which complaints about different emerging technologies may, or may not, fall within EWOV's current jurisdiction. Recent research undertaken by the EWOV team concluded that — without targeted reform — an increasing number of energy customers may not have access to EWOV in the decades ahead. Our research has given us an early roadmap of what to expect from the future energy system. We're sharing this with policymakers to help get the settings right for a robust and capable consumer protection framework.

Read Ombudsman Cynthia Gebert's overview of the 2019-20 year in the full report.

Customers and cases

Electricity

Gas

Water

Case studies

Billing case study: Water billing based on lot liability

RESIDENTIAL CUSTOMER | VACANT PROPERTY | RESIDENTIAL COMPLEX
2019/14426

Mr Y complained about high water bills for an unoccupied property, seeking to have his latest bill of $388 reduced to $180. He said his water corporation had told him the billing was correct. When Assisted Referral to the water corporation didn't resolve the complaint, we opened an Investigation.

Responding to our Investigation, the water corporation said that Mr Y's property was part of a group of 159 lots, all supplied through one water meter. Based on advice from the owners' corporation, each property was billed based on its lot liability under the owners' corporation plan. Mr Y's property had a liability factor of 447, making him responsible for 0.38% of the cost of water to the property. Any change to this billing arrangement would need to be requested in writing by the owners' corporation.

Our Investigation confirmed that the disputed bill was similar to the one Mr Y received for the same period the year before. We also confirmed that he was being billed in line with the percentage the owners' corporation had allocated to him.

We explained to Mr Y that the water corporation was billing him in line with Section 263A of The Water Act (1989), which sets out the liability of owners' corporation or lot owners for fees relating to the supply of water, and that the owners' corporation could change the percentage of the total usage each lot/owner pays by advising the water corporation in writing.

Having already provided Mr Y with $250 in customer service credits in response to his concerns, the water corporation offered a payment extension. Mr Y accepted this offer and the complaint was closed.

Credit case study: Recent job loss deepens financial hardship

RESIDENTIAL CUSTOMER | NOTICE OF DISCONNECTION | ACCESS TO UTILITY RELIEF GRANT SCHEME
2020/3232 & 2020/3225

Having recently lost her job, Ms A received an electricity disconnection notice. Ms A was carrying arrears on both her electricity and gas accounts. She said that when she contacted her energy retailer to arrange payment extensions and plans, she wasn't told about the Utility Relief Grant Scheme. Due to Ms A's vulnerable circumstances and imminent disconnection of her supply, we exercised our discretion to bypass Assisted Referral and open an Investigation.

The energy retailer said Ms A had been maintaining her payments until early August 2019. Since then her payments hadn't been enough to cover her usage and the debt had built up. It said she was still making payments, but not enough to cover the arrears and ongoing bills. The retailer said it was unclear what had led to Ms A's changed circumstances. It said payment plans, with pay-on-time discounts, were set up in November 2019 and January 2020 to help with the arrears and the ongoing bills — when Ms A didn't keep up the payments, the payment plans were cancelled. The retailer maintained it had made best endeavours to contact Ms A via SMS and phone — but it also admitted that its staff had the opportunity to provide her with the application form for a Utility Relief Grant and didn't do so.

As a result of our Investigation, the retailer applied pay-on-time discounts to Ms A's electricity account, a total credit of $2,683.09. It also cancelled and re-billed her electricity from January 2019 to January 2020, to apply the Annual Electricity Concession, a total of $437.91. This reduced her electricity debt to $51.48.

The retailer also applied pay-on-time discounts of $560.08 to her gas account. It cancelled and re-billed for May 2019 to October 2019, to apply the Winter Energy Concession, a total of $115.68. This reduced her gas debt to $393.95.

The retailer put these debts on hold for 6 months. 

At case closure, Ms A's electricity usage was averaging $10.19 a day and $142.73 a fortnight. A payment plan of $75 a fortnight for electricity was agreed. Her gas usage was averaging $4.29 a day and $60.16 a fortnight. A payment plan of $25 a fortnight for gas was agreed.

The retailer also undertook to provide her with assistance under the Payment Difficulty Framework, including energy efficiency advice to help her manage her usage, tariff reviews tailored to her usage, its best available offers, and the form to apply for a Utility Relief Grant.

Ms A agreed to participate in the retailer's hardship program, be contactable, and make the fortnightly payments on time.

Provision case study: Balancing aesthetics with functionality

RESIDENTIAL CUSTOMER | NETWORK ASSET INSTALLATION | LACK OF CONSULTATION/NOTICE
2019/21554

Ms W arrived home to find a 'large black disc' installed unexpectedly at her property entrance. She considered it detracted from the aesthetics of her property. Ms W said she contacted the local electricity distributor seeking to have the disk relocated or removed. The distributor's response was that the device was an external antenna, which couldn't be removed because it was needed for improved meter communications.

When Assisted Referral didn't progress the complaint, we opened an Investigation. The electricity distributor acknowledged the device was installed without consultation and that Ms W had contacted it several times. It said the device was needed to fix a communication fault — so that the Advanced (Smart) Meter stayed synchronised, and so it could meet its regulatory obligations to provide accurate, remotely read data to the electricity retailer. It added that it had offered to replace the antenna with a white one.

Our Investigation explored whether the antenna could be moved to the other side of the wall, but this was discounted as it created reception problems and may cause meter reading issues. After discussions, Ms W accepted the distributor's proposal that it have the device repainted. However, she rejected its offer of a customer service payment of $200, in favour of being notified when a new, improved product became available and could be fitted. The distributor agreed to monitor new products that would be suitable for this situation and would be a better look than the current antenna.

Supply case study: Dealing with the cold without gas

RESIDENTIAL CUSTOMER | REGULAR GAS OUTAGES | UPGRADE DELAYS
2019/13496

Several times a week Ms T lost her gas supply for several hours. Pointing toWhen Assisted Referral didn't resolve the complaint, we opened an Investigation.

The local gas distributor said a known 'water in service' issue was affecting the property, and a mains upgrade was scheduled for 2021. It said this was a large project, based on greatest demand. It necessitated extensive planning, contributions from other authorities, and a significant amount of time to ensure the works were completed compliantly and to a high standard.

While it acknowledged Ms T had experienced significant outages, it said there were other areas in her suburb in more urgent need of attention, and these works had to be completed before hers. It offered to increase water syphoning (including before forecasted rains) and provide her with fortnightly updates. It said she would receive four Guaranteed Service Level (GSL) payments for July and August 2019, a total of $750, and possibly for September 2019 after assessment.

The distributor provided a further customer service payment of $589. It also said that if Ms T engaged a plumber who could provide a detailed assessment of each appliance, including whether any repairs were needed because of the gas supply issues, it would cover the plumber's charges. Ms T was satisfied with this outcome and the complaint was closed. 

Credit case study: Selling jewellery to pay energy bills

RESIDENTIAL CUSTOMER | FIRST LANGUAGE NOT ENGLISH | COMMUNITY OUTREACH CONTACT
WDP/2019/590

Ms E, who speaks English as a second language, approached EWOV staff at a community outreach event in early December 2019. She told us she was using emergency relief to feed her family. She said her energy retailer had disconnected her electricity without warning due to arrears of $900 and was threatening to disconnect her gas. She said things worsened when she needed to travel overseas for family reasons and Centrelink stopped her payments. Ms E said her retailer told her she must pay $500 and agree to a $160 a fortnight payment plan to have her electricity reconnected. She said that, to do this, she had to sell jewellery.

Given Ms E's vulnerable circumstances, we used our discretion to bypass Assisted Referral to open an Investigation. Responding to our Investigation, the energy retailer confirmed that Ms E's electricity was disconnected and reconnected on the same day in mid-October. It said the gas had not been disconnected.

As a result of EWOV's Investigation, the energy retailer applied credits of $650 to Ms E's electricity and gas accounts in recognition of not sending her the form to apply for a Utility Relief Grant. It applied pay-on-time discounts and once-off credits to her accounts, and it waived the electricity reconnection fee. After credits of $970.73 for electricity and $1,075.24 for gas, both of her accounts had credit balances. The retailer said that Ms E could ask about a payment arrangement when she received her next gas or electricity bill. 2019/22160 & 2019/22161

EWOV’s separate investigation of whether the disconnection was wrongful found that Ms E’s electricity supply was disconnected for just under four hours. The equivalent wrongful disconnection payment was $81.94. The retailer agreed to apply a credit of $81.94 to Mrs E’s electricity account, with no breach recorded. 

Land case study: Maintaining public safety

CONCERNED CITIZEN | PUBLIC INCONVENIENCE & SAFETY | ELECTRICITY NETWORK ASSETS
2019/13496

In early September 2019, Mr A complained that a set of streetlights in the middle of a tram track on a major road had been out for almost a year. Following Assisted Referral, he returned saying the electricity distributor had told him it would take about 3 to 4 weeks for the lights to be fixed. A month later the lights still weren't working.

Responding to our Investigation of the complaint, the local electricity distributor confirmed that a small fire at the base of a tramway power pole in December 2018 affected the underground lighting cabling. It said the cabling in this section was set directly into concrete with no conduit, so repairing the cable would involve trenching approximately 500 metres of concrete below the tram lines. The tram operator wasn't prepared to shut down the tram service to have the repairs done, but it agreed to a temporary overhead power supply as a short-term solution.

The lighting was reconnected in early October 2019. The distributor undertook to work with the tram operator on a permanent solution, noting that the timeframe would be dictated by the tram operator. It apologised for the time taken to restore the lighting, but said it believed this had been communicated to Mr A by phone and email during 2019. We updated Mr A. Our Investigation was closed when he didn't maintain contact with us. 

Marketing case study: Misled on contract rates

RESIDENTIAL CUSTOMER | DOOR-TO-DOOR MARKETING | DEBT
2019/13316

Ms C switched electricity retailer after being promised fixed rates for two years of 21.95c per kWh (peak) and 15c per kWh (off-peak) by a door-to-door marketer. When she received her bills, the rates were different. By the time she contacted EWOV, her arrears were building, and she was out of work.

Assisted Referral to Ms C's retailer confirmed that the rates on her bill were wrong. It provided a credit of $167, but that still left Ms C with a large debt she couldn't pay. She returned to EWOV and we opened an Investigation. The retailer said Ms C was on its best market offer. However, it also said its review of the complaint showed poor customer service in handling her concerns — initially, and when she made subsequent calls over several months. It said Ms C should have been quoted 30c per kWh (peak) and 15c per kWh (off-peak). She was also told the contract was fixed-term when it didn't offer fixed-term contracts.

It said a $341.95 account credit in mid-August 2019 for delayed billing had reduced her arrears to $1,122.54. It apologised and provided a further credit of $336.76. This left Ms C owing $785.78. The retailer offered hardship assistance in the form of a $63 fortnightly payment plan for two years to cover her ongoing electricity usage and arrears, assistance to apply for a Utility Relief Grant, over the phone energy audits, and quarterly reviews to help her reduce her energy consumption and costs. 

Privacy case study: Asked for personal information she hadn't provided on signing up

DETAILS REQUESTED BY COMPANY | IDENTIFICATION OPTIONS
2020/4607

Ms J had recently switched retailers. Having been asked to input her date of birth, when she rang her energy retailer to ask for an extension of time to pay an energy bill, Ms J was worried about the security of her personal information. Ms J said she didn't recall providing her date of birth when she switched over. When Assisted Referral didn't resolve the complaint, we opened an Investigation.

The gas retailer told us its records went back five years only, but it thought it was likely it obtained Ms J's date of birth when she set up her first account with it back in 2011. As part of our Investigation, we checked the current Code of Conduct for Marketing Retail Energy in Victoria. Under the Code, an energy retailer is required to keep telephone marketing records for one year only. The retailer said that there were strict guidelines around account security, which its call centre staff had to follow to be able to discuss her account. However, if Ms J didn't wish to use her date of birth, she didn't have to — she could be verified by way of her name, address, account number and total of her last invoice. Ms J confirmed this was her preference and the complaint was closed. 

Solar case study: Upset at 'losing' the Premium Feed-in Tariff

RESIDENTIAL CUSTOMER | DISPUTED ELIGIBILITY | RETAILER SWITCH HIGHLIGHTED CONFUSION ABOUT SET-UP
2019/18395

Mr B complained that he lost the Premium Feed-in Tariff (PFiT) when he switched electricity retailer. He said his solar system was installed in early 2011, and he'd received the PFiT until switching retailer in August 2019. When the new retailer continued to insist that he wasn't eligible, he contacted EWOV. When Assisted Referral didn't resolve the complaint, we opened an Investigation.

The retailer told us that, because Mr B signed up through its website, it couldn't assess his feed-in tariff eligibility at 'point of sale'. But he'd been advised over the phone in early August 2019, and in writing in late August 2019, that his site wasn't eligible for PFiT.

We contacted the local electricity distributor to check on the original application. We found that the solar information received from Mr B's original retailer in February 2011 didn't specify application of the PFiT tariff. The distributor said the tariff code was SFiT (standard feed-in tariff) from installation and it hadn't received a service order from the retailer requesting that be changed to PFiT. The retailer also provided evidence that the distributor had provided this advice in August 2019.

We explained the results of our Investigation to Mr B. The retailer calculated the difference between the PFiT and the SFiT since Mr B switched across in August 2019 as $75.14. It credited this to Mr B's electricity account. Mr B accepted the outcome and the complaint was closed.

Embedded network case study: Arriving at a fair refund

SHOPPING CENTRE TENANT | FAULTY METER | OVERCHARGED FOR 6 YEARS
2019/16975

Mr N, the owner of a grocery business in a shopping centre, contacted EWOV unable to agree on the amount he should be refunded after high billing due to a faulty meter. He calculated the refund at $162,000. The embedded network entity, through which his electricity was purchased, had acknowledged the faulty meter. It initially offered him $100,000, before increasing this to $112,000, then $140,000.

We opened an Investigation when the embedded network entity advised us that it had already apologised to Mr N and had met with him several times without reaching a resolution. It confirmed that the meter at Mr N's business was replaced in 2018, after which his bills fell significantly.

Our review of the billing data for Mr N's business showed that he had been charged a total of $343,413 since July 2012. We were also able to draw on historical and current meter data to calculate our assessment that Mr N had been overcharged $109,446. We shared our calculations with him and with the embedded network entity. The embedded network entity elected to increase its offer to $147,000. Mr N accepted this, and the complaint was closed. 

Scheme participants

Glossary