We're just feeding the powers that be

18:27, Apr 01 2014
power prices
PRICES ON THE MARCH: It doesn't matter what we do and what we don't, power prices just keep rising.

I've just received my monthly power bill and it's for nearly $200, even though we are hardly in the middle of winter.

I can't say I was surprised by the amount. The bills for the two previous months (summer months, mark you) were very similar.

Now I will admit at the outset that our power bills are above those of the average household. I know this because Mercury Energy sends me a monthly email reminding me of the fact.

I'm not sure why we use more electricity than the average home because we are only a two-person household. We do have two heat pumps but they are hardly ever used in summer, and to a certain extent this form of heating must surely be slightly offset by the fact that we use our washing machine much less than say a young family would.

We have a heated towel rail in the bathroom, which we hardly ever use (the towel rail that is - I may be a Pom but contrary to the popular myth we Brits do shower regularly). Our clothes dryer is also used only very occasionally.

So I got to thinking maybe this monthly email chiding us for being a household that uses more than the average amount of electricity is a ploy on the part of the power company to put the blame for high power bills back on to us.


Who knows? Perhaps they tell all their customers that.

All right, I know I'm in the realms of fantasy there but it was with this in mind that I decided to look back at my power bills over the years and, guess what, the increase in the price of power is out of all proportion to inflation.

Back in 2000-01 we were paying Contact Energy $107 a month for our power. This was by an equalised payment method so we could accurately budget for our power bills and the winter months weren't too expensive. Under this method we were even receiving a credit at the end of the year. So in 14 years our power bill has doubled. Has your income doubled in that time? I doubt it.

By mid-2004 we had switched to TrustPower for reasons that now escape me. We'd probably had a visit from a nice door-knocker advocating the move. The equalised payments had by now reached $150.

In the last decade our power bills have continued rising quite rapidly, even though we have tried to take advantage of the "competitive" market by twice more switching suppliers.

In 2010 we received the lowest power bill in a decade - $91. It sounds good until you factor in that we were away from home for the whole billing period. Our home was totally unused apart from a family member calling in to feed the cat. Perhaps our pet was surreptitiously turning on the heat pumps whenever he felt a bit cold.

Whenever politicians face complaints about the constant surge in power prices they trot out the usual mantra, as Prime Minister John Key did only a few weeks ago: "Shop around. Change suppliers."

This would be good advice but for one thing: you still end up paying inflated bills.

I once changed supplier because I wasn't happy with their fixed rate charges only to find that my new power company, while it had marginally lower fixed rates, was charging slightly higher tariffs thus negating any benefit from the change.

Statistics on consumer switching are used by politicians to justify their view that there is real competition in the energy market but it's all smoke and mirrors. The competition is illusory.

I'm sure I'm not alone in longing for the days when local power boards purchased electricity from the old NZED and distributed it at a reasonable price. These were power authorities that didn't need flash offices and layer upon layer of highly paid management structures to administer their activities.

But, of course, all that changed when we listened to the monetarists preaching free market philosophies and we allowed the power structure that consumers had paid for over the years to be "sold" into big company hands.

British customers are similarly distressed by their power bills. A recent survey revealed only 17 per cent of consumers felt they were getting a fair deal from their energy companies, 72 per cent felt the companies were acting like a cartel and a massive 83 per cent felt the energy market was broken.

I strongly suspect any comparable poll here would reveal similar results. Unfortunately, most of us feel powerless, so to speak.

Well, must leave it there. I've got to go to check the cat has turned the heat pumps on again.

The Timaru Herald