Can you protect yourself from rising energy bills?

Article published 1 June 2022

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How many times have you opened your energy bill only to get a nasty shock?

There’s nothing worse than being prepared for one number and suddenly not knowing where you’ll scrape together the money for a higher one.

With winter officially starting today, it’s a worry this will start happening more often.

Especially now that the Australian Energy Regulator has announced the new default market offer, in place from 1 July, is up to $227 higher in NSW than it was last year.

The default offer is the most a person can be charged if they haven’t shopped around for a better offer. But even if they’re getting a special deal, providers tend to set these based on the default offer.

Only three states (NSW, Queensland and Western Australia) offer financial hardship programs that actually offer money. Queensland makes available $720 once every two years. Western Australia offers “up to” $580 a year for financial hardship south of the 26th parallel, $960 north. NSW offered $1,200 but has recently increased this amount!

Elsewhere, energy retailers are required to run hardship programs, but it is essentially between the customer and the retailer, and no cash is available to help. It’s payment plans in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory, and as long as you stick to those you can’t be disconnected.

Even though they offer money, the NSW, Queensland and Western Australia hardship schemes have in common that they are extremely difficult to access.

To help with the impending price increase, the NSW Government has decided to increase the limits for the Energy Accounts Payment Assistance (EAPA) voucher program from $300 to $400 a quarter.

This means that eligible people can claim up to $1600 a year to help with electricity and gas bills.

If you apply, you’ll need proof of identity documents and your latest electricity or gas bill.

If your application is successful, these $50 vouchers, up to the value of $400, are electronically sent straight to your energy provider to be applied to your account.

But getting help is a complicated process.

Even though NSW is relatively generous in comparison with the rest of Australia, EAPA vouchers are still notoriously hard to get. People used to have to line up outside offices of charities to try to get their hands on some before they ran out. Being online has only slightly streamlined the process.

Firstly, the program is only available for someone who’s going through a short-term financial crisis that’s stopping them from paying their bill.

This could be from unexpected medical bills, sudden loss of income or anything else that might be making things harder.

During the application process people will be asked to prove that they’re having to go without other necessities such as food or healthcare to pay their bill or that they are at risk of being disconnected due to an unpaid bill.

To be eligible an applicant also needs to be assessed either by Service NSW or an approved organisation such as Anglicare, Salvation Army or Wesley Mission (the full list can be found here).

One big bonus to the program is that once an applicant has notified their energy provider that they have an appointment for an EAPA assessment the provider isn’t allowed to disconnect them.

If you’re applying for EAPA vouchers, you need to let your energy provider know as soon as you have an appointment to buy yourself some extra time even if the assessment doesn’t work out in your favour.

At the moment, EAPA vouchers are not available for people who live in an embedded network. This includes places like retirement villages, residential parks or some strata plans where the owner buys from a provider and on-sells to residents.

If a person meets the criteria, the EAPA voucher boost could seriously help with rising costs, especially if they take advantage of the other energy and gas rebates available through Service NSW.

Still, it’s the best energy financial hardship scheme in the country, and one which the other states and territories would do well to emulate.

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