Families already struggling with the cost of living could be pushed over the edge this winter, according to energy expert and Solar Analytics CEO Stefan Jarnason.
More than a million Australians are bracing themselves for big increases to their energy bills after the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) announced in March default electricity plans are set to increase this year.
Homes in NSW, Queensland and South Australia could see a 20-22% jump to electricity costs, while Victorians might find their bills are up by as much as a third.
Mr Jarnason believes high rates can primarily be attributed to the greed of energy retailers
"Temporary supply chain disruptions and shortages have abated yet we're still seeing rising energy prices because retailers have a plethora of sneaky tricks up their sleeves when it comes to electricity bills," Mr Jarnason said.
He gave several examples of the tactics he believes energy companies are employing.
1. 'Loyalty Tax' and obfuscating bills
One of the big things energy companies rely on, according to Mr Jarnason, is that consumers are too lazy to do their research to find the cheapest possible energy plan.
He feels some within the industry are exploiting those who stay with the same plan for an extended period of time, charging a loyalty tax on customers who stick around.
"Although [switching] is now a simple online process, most people have busy lives and are unsure if switching really will save them money," he said.
Last year, Lily D’Ambrosio, the Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, said Victorians could save on average of $330 a year by shopping around.
Victorians can claim the $250 power saver bonus payment just for visiting the Victorian Energy Compare website.
Mr Jarnason says that part of the loyalty tax strategy involves energy companies deliberately making bills complicated, with many different charges, tariffs or discounts, to make it hard to figure out if you're getting ripped off.
The AER set the reference price, based on average electricity use in your area, to make it easier to compare deals from different companies.
Electricity companies must show how their advertised price compares to the reference price in percentage terms.
You can easily compare electricity, gas and internet plans available in your area with Infochoice.
2. Hidden fees and charges in 'discounted plans'
In recent times, the ACCC have cracked down on hidden fees in energy contracts, with particular protections on the default or safety plan all providers must offer.
The default offer must be priced simply, without conditional discounts or additional charges.
However, these guarantees aren't as robust for discounted plans, and special offers entice customers to switch over.
Mr Jarnason says that although the ACCC have been pretty good at eliminating small print charges for things like paper bills or early contract termination, customers should still be trawling the terms and conditions to make sure they understand exactly what they are signing up for.
"Be aware that electricity retailers are only offering [attractive sign up incentives] because they know they will make more money in the long run," he said.
3. Figure out if bundling is worth it
Although many bundled packages (electricity, gas and internet for example) mean savings compared to buying each service separately, Mr Jarnason thinks some people are still being caught out by offers that aren't as attractive as they seem.
"Make sure to compare each service not just against what you are paying now, but against the cheapest available plan for you," he said.
4. Consider switching to solar
Solar Analytics has seen 10 times as many enquiries in the past couple of months as the weather continues to cool.
Mr Jarnason says that there's never been a better time to look into how much you could save with solar panels.
"Getting rooftop solar typically reduces your electricity bill by 70%, and one in three Australian homes now have solar panels on their roofs," he said.
5. How to get federal energy bill relief
In last week's budget, the government announced eligible Australians can receive up to $500 in energy cost relief, to be subtracted directly from the bill.
A household will be eligible if someone within it qualifies for any of the following:
- Pensioners Concession Card
- Health Care Card (including Commonwealth Seniors Health Card and Low Income Health Care Card)
- Department of Veterans Affairs Card
- Carer's Allowance
- Family Tax Benefit Part A or B
The maximum discounted amount depends on which state or territory you live in
|Maximum annual discounted amount|
*On top of the existing $250 Power Saving Bonus.