More locals in cold as power cut

By Sonya Bateson

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More than 1000 Tauranga people had their power switched off in the past 12 months after not paying their bills.

National figures from the Electricity Authority show non-payment power disconnections have been on the rise in the past two years, with 31,041 in 2011 and 40,885 in 2012.

Among four of the largest energy companies in Tauranga, there were 1025 disconnections from non-payment in the past year, which works out to almost three a day.

The Bay of Plenty Times reported last month power costs for an average Tauranga household (8000kWh per annum) increased $138 in the 12 months to February and a Canstar Blue survey showed one in three Kiwis couldn't afford to adequately heat their homes in winter.

Tauranga Budget Advisory Centre service co-ordinator Diane Bruin said every third or fourth person who came through its doors was seeking assistance for their power bills.

"We have a lot of clients who are referred to Work and Income for power payment assistance. Previously they would be applying for assistance with a food grant but due to the increase in the cost of power ...

[clients] need assistance to address their power bill."

Labour energy spokeswoman Moana Mackey said the trend was happening across the country.

"We've looked at the disconnection rates over the last year as well and they've increased dramatically. We've actually got flagging demand for electricity and surplus product, that tells us the market is not working. This is the time power bills should be going down. This is why Labour has come to the conclusion we have to change the way the market works," Ms Mackey said.

The people she had met were finding it hard to find a power company to take them on due to bad credit, she said.

Tauranga MP Simon Bridges said the number of disconnections was about the same as it was when Labour and the Greens were last in power.

"What's really important is that we have a competitive pricing system for power and we have that today. If people have problems with their power prices they should shop around."

Mr Bridges' office hadn't seen many people who were facing power cuts, but said in extreme circumstances, people should see the Ministry of Social Development or Work and Income to talk through their options.

Citizens Advice Bureau manager Kim Saunders said it hadn't seen a huge demand for people asking for help with power disconnections.

"We usually tell them to go back to the provider and find a way to pay it back or advise them to see Budget Advice. We also hand out leaflets to people who are having a problem with their power bill."

TrustPower community relations manager Graeme Purches said the rate for people being disconnected was falling, not rising. TrustPower has 56,000 customers in the Tauranga and Western Bay areas and in the past 12 months, it made 811 disconnections.

These disconnections were from 664 customers, with 147 repeat offenders. In Tauranga and the Western Bay in the past five months, TrustPower's disconnections per month were running at 79 per cent of the monthly average for the past year, Mr Purches said.

"This reflects the effort we put into trying to help customers manage the problem with disconnection only as a last resort and also the fact that we are much more careful about who we take on as new customers."

Shaun Jones from Contact Energy said there were 183 disconnections in the Bay of Plenty from May 2012 to April out of a customer base of 6800.

"From May 2011 to April 2012 there was a rate of 1.4 per cent disconnections, the May 2012 to April 2013 year the rate increased to 2.6 per cent," Mr Jones said, adding that nationally, about 98 per cent of customers pay their bills before the start of any collections activity while about 0.6 per cent of customers don't at all.

Nova Energy supplied figures showing 23 residential electricity disconnections from April 2012 to May from 1569 customers in Tauranga.

Mercury Energy said it had 30 disconnections from June 2011 to May 2012 compared with eight from June 2012 to May.

Genesis Energy said it did not supply regional figures.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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