Bracing for a big lockdown power bill

Katrina McLellan​ with her five-year-old son Harvey.
Katrina McLellan​ with her five-year-old son Harvey.

At home with four children and wintry temperatures, mum Katrina McLellan,​ says she knows her lockdown power bill is, “going to be a big one”.

She has an automatic payment to her power company weekly but thinks this time she wil have to top it up with an additional payment.

“I am not going to worry about the power bill, the kids are home, and we have to keep well and warm,” McLellan said.

“I can’t face taking sick children to the doctor because they got too cold, we are cosy, and I am using the heat pump, fire and a heater in my crafts shed.”

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She says nobody can cope with the stress of being home with children and all the worries mounting if they are cold.

“I am focused on keeping my home warm and cosy.”

She has bought extra fire wood this winter. McLellan​ is an upholsterer and sews to supplement her income. She has been at her sewing machine making Covid-19 protection face masks over the past week.

Christchurch residents have praised the Government for a quick response to the latest Covid-19 outbreak.

Home electricity usage in the first week of Level 4 lockdown in 2020 increased by about 15 per cent.

Having a 6kW heat pump on for eight hours a day for a month would cost about $66.48, compared to $16.62 if it was only used for two hours a day.

Electricity Authority chief executive James Stevenson-Wallace​ wrote to power supply companies this week urging them to observe new guidelines that recommend disconnections for non-payment, of both post and pre-pay customers, should not occur at a time that may “endanger the wellbeing of the customer or any consumer at the premises”.

The Authority’s consumer care guidelines took effect on July 1.

The guidelines focus on electricity retailers providing a consistent and supportive standard of service.

How much is working from home costing you?
How much is working from home costing you?

‘Electricity is important to the health, wellbeing and social participation of people and whānau in communities. Under this principle, electricity retailers should work proactively to minimise harm caused by difficulty accessing electricity, including by disconnection, keep customers connected, avoiding disconnection for an unpaid electricity invoice, and only use disconnection as a last-resort measure.

“The authority considers pandemic-related lockdowns, including under Covid 19 alert levels 3 and 4 fit this criterion,” Stevenson-Wallace said.

Power companies contacted were all aware of the need to assist people concerned about their increased power use in lockdown.

Some were seeing an increase in calls from worried customers.

Contact Energy said it was open to discussions to help customers with managing their bills and encouraging people to get in touch early.

It launched “Good Nights” this month, which offers free power from 9pm to midnight every night until the end of October.

Mercury Energy said electricity usage at homes across New Zealand during lockdown went up last time, and it expects this to be the case this time as well, “particularly with the cooler weather”.

“We want to hear from our customers if they’re worried about the impact of lockdown on their electricity use and financial situation. The team are ready to provide extra assistance to these customers, and are focussed on care, empathy and helping our customers stay connected,” a spokeswoman said.

Genesis Energy has paused customer disconnections and late payment fees during level 4.

“Understandably we have seen a slight increase in calls to our customer care centre by people worried about paying their next bill,” genesis spokeswoman Tracey Hickman said.

Genesis chief customer care manager Tracey Hickman
Genesis chief customer care manager Tracey Hickman

“We have a team available Monday to Friday 8am to 7pm to support customers if they need help with their payments, and work with them individually to tailor a realistic plan that works for them. We urge people to call us in advance of their bill being due so we can help.

“We fully understand that increasing numbers of New Zealanders will be feeling the effects of this lockdown on the back of many months of financial pressure and with ongoing future uncertainty.”

Consumer NZ operates the Powerswitch’​ service where people can check they are with the cheapest electricity provider based on their individual circumstance.

Technical adviser James le Page​ suggests that people should firstly see where they are wasting power.

Consumer adviser James le Page says he avoids having the heat pump too high by dressing warmly.
Consumer adviser James le Page says he avoids having the heat pump too high by dressing warmly.

“Check the kids’ rooms to see if they’ve left any rogue heaters running and the same goes for anything plugged into the wall you aren’t using,” Page said.

Appliances use small amount of power while waiting on standby, but add all these devices together and the costs can add up.

Page says not having heaters and hot water cylinders set higher than needed, cleaning filters in heat pumps, and shutting curtains helps to keep the power bills down.

“I am home in wool slippers, track pants and a puffer vest. I am warm and have the heat pump not above 20 degrees Celsius. Wearing layers inside keeps the bill down.

“The house doesn’t need to be like a tropical Island, but comfortable.”