Consumer watchdogs are suggesting compensation "three times over" for hundreds of people who lost electricity on the coldest weekend of the year after a power company's computer system crashed.
The Genesis breakdown, which affected those who pay for their power in advance, left angry customers some with sick children without heat and light a day after freezing weather brought the first snow flurries to central Wellington in 14 years.
One Porirua woman, caring for her three children and a nephew, says a Genesis representative told her to "get tough".
The problems began on Saturday, when customers running low on credit tried to pay for their power in advance.
They queued in the cold nationwide, but a computer fault meant they could not pay and the power went out for hundreds of customers over the next 24 hours.
The payment system was fixed about 2pm yesterday, but Genesis could not say how many customers were still without power last night.
Tania Tai-Albert whose three children have asthma lost her power at 8am yesterday after trying to top up her credit on Sunday.
When she rang to complain, she said she was told: "Get tough, you'll have to go without".
Courtney Lukitau, at Video Ezy Porirua, said that by midday yesterday more than 50 people had come in to pay their power or complain. The phone was ringing nonstop. "They're pretty aggravated."
Molly Melhuish, an energy analyst for the Domestic Energy Users' Network, said consumers should be compensated for three times the value of the power they had missed out on.
"They went out during some of the worst weather Wellington has seen in decades to try to pay their power bill and they got disconnected."
Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin said prepay customers were the most vulnerable, and there might be a case for compensation. "Genesis will have a lot of explaining to do."
Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee said the fault was a "pretty big kick in the teeth" for Genesis.
"I think there would be a reasonable expectation that, should a computer fail, there would be some backup available."
Genesis spokesman Richard Gordon said the blackouts were not "disconnections" which required the company to go out and physically take houses off the local grid. "Because it's a prepay system, it's not like you get cut off. You just run out of power and you can't buy any more."
Asked how serious the problem was, Mr Gordon said: "It's not a big problem. We've got fewer than 10,000 customers [on this plan]."
He disputed that a Genesis staff member had told a customer to "get tough", saying this was contrary to customer-service training.
But he apologised to those people affected and said a full review of Genesis' systems would begin today. The company was also considering compensation.
Power companies agreed to voluntary guidelines to help vulnerable consumers in 2007 after the death of Auckland woman Folole Muliaga, but they do not cover accidental disconnections.
Last month, a Commerce Commission study concluded that power generators gouged more than $4 billion from consumers by using their market dominance to hike prices.
'DON'T GET OUT OF BED, KIDS'
Tania Tai-Albert's prepaid power cut out at 8am yesterday, when it was 7 degrees celsius in Porirua.
Yesterday afternoon the family, including her three children and nephew, were rugged up trying to keep warm. A friend brought a flask to fill hot water bottles. "She's going to be freezing, mate. I've told the kids they're not to get outta bed."
They had to forgo breakfast. "We're not the sort of family that can afford to go to McDonald's. We'd rather put our money into power and cook our own kai."
Angry and upset, Mrs Tai-Albert said she was disgusted at the way she had been treated by Genesis Energy. "I was told, `Get tough, you'll have to go without."'
During a 29-minute call to her power company, she was put on hold for 22 minutes, then shunted between four employees. They told her it could be another day before power was restored.
"I'm not going to be bullied by a big company," she said.
Her nephew, Rahleigh Tipuna, said they snuggled up to stay warm. He was wearing a jacket, three T-shirts, trackpants and hat.
Mrs Tai-Albert said Genesis did not bother telling her its prepay system was fixed she found out through friends. Power was restored about 4pm.
PENSIONER MAD ABOUT CUT-OFF
Nooanga Tauakume was left shivering, breathless and hungry yesterday after the Genesis computer glitch left him in the cold.
It was just 6 degrees celsius when his Cannons Creek home was plunged into darkness before 7am when his power went off.
The pensioner, who suffers from asthma, usually has a heater on day and night. But the 65-year-old was stranded in his rocking chair with just blankets for warmth on the first day of winter.
"Oh boy, what's going on with the power?" he asked. "I'm just waiting, but I'm cold and need the heater."
He was also hungry, having had just coleslaw for breakfast, his bid to heat up KFC potato and gravy thwarted by his power being out.
He said he wanted to walk to his nephew's with his Zimmer frame but was told by granddaughter Army, 23, that it was too cold.
Army said she had gone to add credit to the prepay account on Saturday night but was told there was a glitch and that she should return the next day.
Mr Tauakume said the household spent about $300 a month on power and he was mad about being cut off.
HOW PREPAY POWER WORKS
Genesis offers a system called "InCharge" that lets people top up their power before they use it. There are 10,000 users nationwide.
Customers can top up in increments between $20 and $300 by entering a pin obtained from Genesis into a keypad in their home.
When a customer's credit falls to $10, they hear a low-volume tone from the keypad, which repeats every half hour.
The meter can tell customers how many days of credit they have left.
Genesis says people who need power for medical treatment should not be on the plan.
Information on Genesis Energy's InCharge system from its website says: "It's designed to make it easier for you to control your electricity usage.
"Your Genesis Energy InCharge meter tells you if your credit is running low You'll get plenty of warning before you run out of electricity."
- The Dominion Post