Households risk "debt or disconnection" as complaints over high household energy bills leap almost 90 per cent in NSW.
The national consumer watchdog has warned it is "closely watching" the retailers while the NSW energy ombudsman was swamped with 2186 individual complaints in July alone - up 500 from the previous month.
In the three months to July 2023 there were 1357 objections lodged over high bills compared to just 719 in the same period the year before, representing an 89 per cent increase.
A further 111 complaints were about price rises - a 113 per cent leap - and another 109 over payment difficulties.
But concerns were already high before winter. Complaints to the ombudsman overall jumped from 11,224 in 2021-22 to 13,813 the following year.
"The cost of living crisis, combined with increased energy prices, is putting many customers at risk of mounting debt or disconnection," deputy Energy & Water Ombudsman NSW Helen Ford told ACM.
Heat or eat?
"Bill shock" is reverberating across homes around Australia just six weeks into new price cap increases of up to 24.9 per cent.
Ro, a pensioner with a disability, said she has a knee replacement and subsequently developed a blood clot and was forced to keep the heating on over winter while she recovered.
"I do what I usually do - just one room [at a time]," she said. "I try to sit there and just have three rugs on me, or four."
Living in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney Ro, who is aged in her 70s, said the past few months had been very cold.
"Always, always the prices go up and I'm usually able to keep it at a level I can manage on a pension," she said.
"It seems like there's this big wedge from people to just gouge, price gouge us."
Fellow Older Women's Network member Deb Cash said she avoided "bill shock" by paying into her electricity account weekly.
"I review it regularly, doing my research," the 68-year-old said.
'We're watching you'
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has warned it is paying attention - and will be checking the energy companies' profits against prices they are charging Australians.
"We are watching the electricity retail market closely and our future reports will look at retailer profitability ... retail electricity prices, and retail competition," an ACCC spokesperson told ACM.
"We are also closely watching whether energy companies are meeting their legal obligations in the way that they communicate price changes to customers."
The watchdog has already said households are paying up to 20 per cent more than they need to.
The ACCC does not set energy prices, but does monitor them. Only about 10 per cent of customers are captured under safety net price caps administered by the Australian Energy Regulator.
Most households are on plans advertised by the energy companies or negotiated with them.
Where to get help
"We're focused on reminding customers that there is support available and how to access it," NSW deputy energy ombudsman Helen Ford said.
The ombudsman recommends:
Home is where the heat is
While housing and rent increase limits were the focus of the national cabinet meeting in Brisbane on Wednesday, August 16, social justice advocates were also calling for action on electricity and gas prices.
"The government must work with energy providers to ensure people unable to keep up with their bills can access debt relief, and with the states to reform energy concessions," Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) chief executive Cassandra Goldie said.
"Even before July 1 ACOSS surveys showed people on low incomes [were] forced to take extreme measures and choose between heating and food."
Two of the largest energy providers, Origin and AGL, said they had hardship programs to help the most disadvantaged.
"Our intention is to make sure that the vast majority of our customers continue to pay no more than the regulated default offer as a result of recent price changes," an Origin Energy spokesperson said.
AGL said it understood households were under pressure.
"Our decision to increase prices for our market contract customers is based on a detailed consideration of a range of factors, including wholesale prices, network charges, retail operating costs, customer affordability and the value we offer to our customers," a spokesperson said.
Have you experienced "bill shock"? Tell us in the comments below or email the journalist: firstname.lastname@example.org