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From the CEO
I hope this latest edition of our newsletter finds you well. Another busy month has passed and I for one am looking forward to the ‘spring’ into daylight savings time and the longer hours and warmer days ahead!
We have just finalised our Business Plan for the 2020-21 year, setting out our priorities and activities. Normally this is also the time of year when we would be busy finalising the program for the next Foresighting Forum. Given the impact of COVID-19 we have decided to delay next year’s forum and work towards Foresighting Forum 2022 which we are planning to hold on 16-17 February 2022. In the meantime, we are working on a supporting series of events throughout the year that look to the future of the energy system from a consumer perspective. Watch this space for more information to come.
We are seeing changes occurring in the energy space and while they might seem small, they could be quite impactful in improving outcomes for consumers. Following a request earlier in the year by the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) has initiated a rule change process to consider how to simplify bills. Delivering simpler and more understandable energy bills could help consumers better manage their energy usage and costs and engage in the retail market. Better communication is also a key change and in September the Australian Energy Council launched a campaign on behalf of energy retailers, drawing attention to the fact that help is available to consumers when you approach your energy retailer for a confidential discussion. We understand that not everyone may feel confident about doing that, so earlier this year we developed our ‘Find Help’ guide which provides step by step guidance for calls.
However, there is less positive news from the Consumer Policy Research Centre where their Consumers and COVID-19 August Snapshot reported disproportionate challenges for Australians living with disability. Results showed these consumers were more likely to ask for payment assistance overall in August and a sizable number of them are dipping into their savings (34%) or using credit cards or buy now pay later services (34%) to manage basic household expenses. It is imperative now, as we see cuts to JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments combined with funds from early Superannuation release earlier this year running low, that we protect all energy consumers. After all, as the impacts of the COVID pandemic have shown, any consumer can quickly and unexpectedly become vulnerable.
This was very clear from the first round of community engagement we are running in East Gippsland, which dived into how households and small business energy consumers have been impacted by the events of 2020. This work, which will be undertaken over the course of a year – with research results to be released in 2021 – explores how energy services systems and communities are coping with major upheavals like the bushfires and the ongoing pandemic. Their resilience is to be admired but initial results point to the broader relevance in the way the energy transition – which involves change and disruption over a long period of time – is managed.
This is a key component of our work on the Post 2025 Market Design process being led by the Energy Security Board. Our focus for the submission to the Consultation Paper (which was released earlier this month with a supporting microsite) will be firmly on consumer needs, protection and identifying and increasing the value of Distributed Energy Resources in the National Energy Market. Our goal is to co-design a carefully mapped-out and staged consumer-centric transition that reflects the essential nature of energy services for households and small businesses. Again, we are putting heavy emphasis on communication and wish to see that the ESB’s proposed energy future, which goes to technical matters around engineering, systems, and markets, can be articulated in an accessible way that builds engagement and confidence in the process. We look forward to hearing the results of the initial public forums that took place on Sept 31 and Oct 1.
September also brought the welcome news that the Australian Competition Tribunal authorised the New Energy Tech Consumer Code, with amendments, for a period of five years. Signatories to the Code will agree to meet higher standards for information, quality and service, including extra consumer protections not currently available to consumers under existing legislation. We believe the Tribunal’s decision substantially achieves the objective of providing a flexible and adaptable consumer protections framework for new energy technology and my heartfelt thanks go out to our team who worked so hard on bringing this to a successful conclusion.
September saw The Energy Charter Signatories submit their disclosures to the Independent Accountability Panel (IAP). The IAP will soon be holding their regional Stakeholder Forums to discuss the annual disclosures submitted by the signatories which is a fantastic opportunity for consumers to have their say on the performance of member organisations over the past year. We would encourage as many people as possible to attend to have their voices heard, especially within the framework of the sectors’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and bushfire crisis of 2020. Register here.
The Australian Energy Regulator’s (AER) draft decision for the Victorian distribution networks provides significant price reductions for consumers and demonstrates the benefit of consumer engagement by networks in developing their revenue proposals. We were pleased to contribute to the thinking for the AER’s draft decision by proposing a new approach for setting ‘prices for devices’. Using electric vehicles as an example, we looked at an alternative tariff design that could deliver significant savings for customers with electric vehicles, while ensuring that customers without were no worse off. While there is some work to do on the detail of the tariff design and its application, we were pleased to see the AER encourage the networks to continue to explore potential future tariffs. Of course, the only way consumers can truly benefit from such innovation is if these tariffs are priced into retail offers for consumers. We note that the AER Draft Decision noted “our initial analysis suggested retailers can create value to share with customers without impacting the customer’s experience”.
In staff news we will soon welcome a new Director of Strategy and Corporate Katrina Porteus, who will be joining us from the 15th of October. Her main role will be to ensure that our high-level strategic vision is aligned with our day to day operations. As you all know we have an ambitious research, advocacy and collaborative agenda to firstly represent consumers in their urgent energy affordability challenges and, longer-term, the bigger re-set and plan needed for a sector in transition and I am very excited for her to join our fantastic team.
On a personal note I would like to acknowledge the departure of Audrey Zibelman from her position as CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO). Driving significant change in an incredibly complex area to work in, Audrey played an important role at a critical time for energy consumers in this transition. We wish her every success in her new role at Google X and her relocation to San Francisco.
Finally, on the topic of consumer protection, community resilience and the vulnerable in society, make sure you check out our ‘Great Grant of the Month’ below where Thuy Linh Nguyen from Sydney Alliance speaks to their project Voices for Power, which brings cultural and religious leaders and communities together to build collective power and collaborate on affordable and renewable energy solutions. I was delighted to see a significant number of applications for our final grants round of 2020, with a range of diverse topics in the field of consumer advocacy and research. I am anticipating exciting outcomes from our future recipients!
I look forward to connecting with you all again soon and I hope you all have a wonderful long weekend.
Chief Executive Officer (Interim)
Consumers to receive greater protection after new energy tech code clears final hurdle
The New Energy Tech Consumer Code will play an important role in ensuring consumers are protected by minimum standards of service when purchasing new energy technologies such as solar panels, batteries and more. Read more.
Submission to the AEMO Initial Distributed Energy Resource Minimum Technical Standards Issues Paper
We believe time is needed for further discussion of Distributed Energy Resources technical standards in order to go beyond engineering solutions and include the ways in which consumers will experience and interact with them. Read our full submission here
Energy Consumers Australia Great Grant of the month
The Sydney Alliance project Voices for Power is our September Great Grant of the month. Voices for Power brings cultural and religious leaders and communities together to build collective power and organise for Affordable and Renewable energy solutions. A key body of their work under the Energy Consumers Australia grant was their Open Letter to Energy Retailers – Bills Relief during COVID-19, which helped to establish expectations of the energy sector in a difficult time for consumers.