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Australian Government extends energy bill support for struggling consumers
Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor. Source: The Guardian
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  • The Federal Government and the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) have extended COVID-19 energy support measures for families and small businesses until the end of June
  • These measures are based on a list of expectations the AER has placed on energy companies to ensure they are supporting struggling customers
  • Essentially, energy suppliers must engage with customers in financial hardship to work our and rearrange payment plans if needed
  • This includes payment plans that mean no payments are made for some period of time
  • On top of this, energy companies cannot cut the power to customers in financial hardship for unpaid bills, so long as the customer is working with the supplier to find a payment solution
  • These support expectations were first introduced in March 2020 and will now last through to June 30
  • However, the AER has flagged that unless Australia faces more COVID-19-related lockdowns and economic blows, this will be the last time the expectations are extended

The Federal Government and the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) have extended COVID-19 energy support measures for families and small businesses until the end of June.

While the support measures don't come directly from the government, they are based on a list of expectations the AER has placed on energy companies to ensure consumers continue to get the support they need in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The expectations were first laid out in March 2020 and were slated to finish up at the end of this month. Now, energy businesses will need to extend their extra support through to June 30.

The expectations essentially revolve around energy payment plans and extensions for customers in financial hardships.

Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor said by extending the statement of expectations, Australians who are having a tough time paying bills can negotiate with energy companies to work out the best possible solution as the world navigates the ongoing effects of the pandemic.

"These strengthened customer protections ensure Australians who are experiencing continued financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic have the support and assistance they need to get back on their feet," Minister Talor said.

"I urge anyone facing difficulties in paying their bills to contact their retailer as soon as possible to discuss the support that is available."

On the same hand, however, he said it's important that customers who can afford to pay their bills continue to do so in order for support to be provided where it is needed most.

What are the energy company expectations?

Essentially, energy companies must work with residential and small business customers in financial stress to either begin or rearrange payment plans.

The AER said in some cases, there may be a period of time where no payments are made at all, and in other instances, energy customers may need help recalculating debt obligations or switching to a cheaper energy plan.

Under the government's expectations, energy suppliers need to work with customers individually to find a way to best suit their needs.

Importantly, however, energy companies are not allowed to disconnect residential customers in financial stress unless the customer directly requests to do so.

Moreover, energy companies cannot cut power to big companies who are on-selling energy to residential and small business customers.

In both cases, the energy customer needs to be in contact with the energy supplier about their financial stress or debt — if the customer is radio-silent, it's fair game to cut their power for unpaid bills.

Nevertheless, if a customer has their power cut because they had not yet made contact or responded to the energy provider, power must immediately be restored upon the customer contacting their supplier.

Other measures are in place to make sure customers have the support they need while at the same time making sure energy companies aren't forced to provide more support than they can afford.

The AER said with today's three-month extension will likely be the last for the extra support expectations.

"The AER intends for this to be the last statement of expectations," the energy regulator said.

"However, a key factor in determining the AER's future approach will be the extent to which there are further pandemic-related health events which require social and physical distancing responses."

If Australia faces another wave of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns, there's a chance the expectations can be extended again, but this will be taken on a day-by-day basis.

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