For years Ohakune and the wider King Country have been battling The Lines Company - now there may be hope around the corner.

After years of complaints to the Electricity Authority an independent pricing review has been commissioned by the board of TLC.

For Anna Grey, the manager of Avonlea Hospital and Home in Taumaranui, the change can't come soon enough.

She says the aged care facility needs electricity to make sure the residents are comfortable and safe.


"We can't skimp on power - we've got 50 residents, they need to be showered, they need good lighting. If we reduce lighting there's a risk of them falling. We can't go and turn heaters off in the winter. It has to be warm."

Avonlea is one of 24,000 TLC customers stretching from Otorohanga to Ohakune.
The company don't generate the power that warms residents' homes, it simply maintains the power lines network.

For the rest of New Zealand the cost of distribution ispart of your electricity bill, but in the King country TLC bills its customers' separately.

Often locals pay more for their lines charge than they do for electricity.
Mrs Grey says Avonlea has seen a monthly bill jump from $1194 to $1520 in one year, despite using roughly the same amount of power.

"We have a set routine, everything stays the same."

She says before the increase TLC sent out a letter informing its customers their bill would go up.

"It seems every April we get another letter telling us we're getting charged more."
But she says things need to improve because for some residents Avonlea is a last resort.
"We've had several male bachelors who have come in and said 'If I hadn't come in here I would be dead'.

"There's a real concern things are going to get worse."


She says the home provides a safe haven, as many pensioners come to them in poor health, due to their attempts to reduce their lines bill.

"Some of the residents that have come in that only had a pension to survive on. There's been a level of self-neglect.

"The majority of the insulation in our houses is substandard. Because people can't afford The Lines Company bill they don't heat their houses, they get cold. They have medical conditions, they end up in hospital."

"Their diets are bad because they don't want to use power to cook.
"They come here, they're warm and well medicated and they flourish."

Mrs Grey says like other rest homes in New Zealand, Avonlea receives funding from the central government, but that funding doesn't account for its monthly line bill.
What makes TLC so different from the other 29 lines companies in New Zealand?
Spokeswoman for TLC Louisa Last says running an electricity network in the King Country is expensive.

"We're quite a large geographical area, we've got a lot of lines to few customers."
TLC owns 4,400kms of lines spread over an area of 13,700 square kilometres. To recover costs in 2007 the company began billing its customers through a system described as "service-based charging".

When the network is under strain or TLC want to control costs it informs its customers it is "load controlling" in an area via its website or through a phone app. When this happens TLC record the customers' power use.

Then it averages the six highest two-hour windows of a customer's use and calculates a major portion of next year's bill from that average.

Some residents use a "SwitchIt" device that turns off power at the plug during load control, but TLC has stated that these devices cannot be relied upon.

The idea is to reduce the load placed on the network, but a NZIER report commissioned by the Ruapehu District in 2011 found load charging was not the "best practice".

It stated TLC's system was not effective in terms of the warning it gave customers during load charging or providing them with a feasible means of responding.

The report said "equity or fairness is not a matter that economics provides firm guidance on ... but the unpredictability of charge-setting processes suggests it would not score highly on this criterion".

Mrs Grey says a rest home like Avonlea cannot afford to switch of the power at a moment's notice.

"We haven't got time to sit in front of the computer and run around to switch everything off."

The retirement home receives funding from the Government but that funding doesn't take into account lines charges for the region.

She says Avonlea is lucky. It has a diesel boiler system to heat water.

In Te Kuiti, Hillview Retirement Home pays $3617.31 for use of the lines, but has the same number of residents as Avonlea.

In 2011 the Commerce Commission found TLC's revenue increased significantly by 25 per cent from 2008 to 2011.

It stated the majority of this jump in revenue came from increased prices.
Ohakune resident of 10 years Ian Murrey says he has seen the changes since TLC switched its pricing system.

"Originally it was about $35 a month ... that's what the lines charges were. It went from that to $68, the following year it went to $88 and just this month I got a letter stating my costs were going to go up to $170 a month."

Mr Murrey runs a business which takes him away from Ohakune during six months of the year. He says that because of this TLC charged him extra.

To bring his bill down to $108 he had to certify that he was not a holiday-home owner.
"I had to go in with my lawyer and sign my life away, that my home was a permanent residence. "They hadn't asked me if it was a holiday home, they had just decided."
In another case, an Ohakune childcare centre's lines bill is six times what itpays for electricity.

The 54M childcare centre runs for a couple of hours a week. Parents can bring their young ones and for a gold-coin donation leave their children for a few hours.
"Things like this are invaluable to a small community. A lot of us don't have family here we can leave our kids with, it's essential."

The group is non-profit, the donations are meant to cover heating and things like teabags. Worker Kelly White says their biggest expense for the centre is the lines charges.
"Our power bill last month was $10 and the lines charges was $66."

The playcentre uses the heat pump in the winter, but pays for the rest of the year.
Ohakune property developer David Holland says the line fees are limiting investment in the region.

"Certainly it has had a very negative impact on tourism and the willingness to invest in the area."

He owns KiwiCoast Development, a major building contractor for Ohakune and the King Country. He says TLC pass the lines bill from owner to owner. If someone moves into a home they are expected to take over the previous owner's bill.

A Commerce Commission review in August found TLC did not have the right to do this and ordered it to remove that term of contract.

"It's got to the point where some of the real estate agents in Ohakune have a special clause now that states check your line company charges. That would be unheard of anywhere else," he said.

He has been a vocal opponent of The Lines Company for the past six years and believes there is an alternative way to keep prices fair and keep the network load down.
"Just different rates for kilowatt usage depending on the season and depending on the time of the day.

"So for example, they could say we are going to charge you 20 cents per kilowatt during the July school holidays, because that's when your maximum usage is.

"On top of that, after 9 or 10 o'clock at night, when everyone is usually switching off their appliances you could have a reduced rate, so that when you do your washing.
"It would be transparent, it would be a lot fairer, people would know when to put on appliances and when not to," he says.

Mr Holland believes that by creating a system that has set prices for set times, residents could plan their use to reduce consumption.

Pricing changes could be closer than many think.

In September TLC's board of directors announced an independent pricing review. Leading the review are Roger Sutton, the former chief executive of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, and Lynne Taylor, the director of PWC's market energy group.

Over the last two months the two have travelled through the King Country asking the community what could be done to improve the electricity pricing system.

"I'm keeping an open mind but we'll be looking at various alternative pricing models from overseas and closer to home," said Mr Sutton.

A draft proposal is due on the TLC website by February 2017 with a final report done by March.

Changes to TLC's pricing system are planned to begin in April 2017 and finish in April 2018.

TLC Chairman Mark Darrow has said the company intend to "start with a blank piece of paper".

One of the community leaders Mr Sutton has met with is Sandra Greenslade, president of the Turangi and Tongariro Residents Association.

She is a vocal opponent of TLC, even speaking on TV3's Story about the company.
"We basically publicly humiliated them into doing [the review]."

She is encouraged by the engagement with the community of the two reviewers.

"So then we had all these focus groups, all round the districts, so people who wanted to were welcome to come along. "They asked the right questions, they wanted to hear from the community.

"At the end of the day it's better than what we've had which is being ignored."

She says it had got to the point were most of the locals she knew use a fire to heat their homes.

"In Turangi in The Lines Company area you cannot have a heat pump and expect that to be your only form of heating.

"I mean we're old, we don't want to be lighting bloody fires every night.

"Simple things like in the morning during load control, you would never switch your kettle and your toaster on at the same time.

"You can forget about switching the dish washer on when you leave for work, what if they load control while you're away? "What sort of craziness is that?

"It's absolutely tragic in these poor communities, around here people don't have two cents to rub together."

Ruapehu Mayor Don Cameron also believes the situation shows the Commerce Commission and the Electricity Authority are "toothless" when it comes to the TLC.
"It's not only unfair, it stinks."

Rangitikei MP Ian McKelvie believes the TLC has acted poorly in the past but the current pricing review shows a change in attitude.

"I can't make any excuses for their history but I think at least they have turned the corner and have started listening to people, and that's a big start."

Sandra Greenslade says she "cautiously hopeful" the system will change, because they've run out of options. I don't think there's any point going through the Commerce Commission or the Electricity Authority.

"It seems they don't have the teeth.

"Right now we can only trust people in positions of power and hold them to their word."
Spokeswoman for TLC Louisa Last told the Chronicle in the last few years the company had been trying to improve communication with customers.

She says the reason customers are charged for their winter usage all year round is so local residents don't have to subsidise winter holiday-home owners.

"If we had something that only charged holiday-home owners that would be a huge part of our network that don't get charged fairly."

She says that since the 2011 NZIER report came out, TLC has made improvements to the pricing system and communication with customers.

While the revenue of TLC increased from 25 per cent from 2008 to 2011 she says the increased revenue was invested back into improvements in the lines system.