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Electricity Regulation

I went to dinner with my daughter and grandchildren on Wednesday night as I often do. She was moaning about her electricity bills as usual. In the end she said she thought they were inventing bills and just making it up as they went along. She thought they were away with the fairies.

My daughter is a highly competent Management Accountant but I could not accept such criticisms of a major provider. She is far too busy to do the task for herself so I asked her to give me all her bills and I would put them of a spread sheet to find out what was happening.

I started at around eleven pm and worked until three. I like the night. The story that evolved really makes me wonder if we know what we are doing.

Daughter had been shopping in Sainsbury’s just before Christmas 2007 when a young lady persuaded her that she could reduce her electricity bills. She has been around the world quite long enough to know there are no free lunches but she was beguiled and signed up.
She signed up to edf Energy and her bills are also headed by Sainsbury’s Energy logo. I put all the dates and readings on a spread sheet and sat back to look. I firstly sorted the data by date of billing but there was no clear pattern of what was happening. Things looked very confused. Then I also sorted the data by meter readings. There emerged a glimmer of an idea so I sorted each line by hand so as to ensure that the last meter reading came just before the current meter reading.

Lo and behold there emerged two completely different sets of meter readings. They both started from the same point shortly after sign-up but bore no further relationship to each other. My daughter was right  - they had been making it up in fairyland. The second set of readings actually reached a point in January 2009 not yet reached on the meter in March 2010. They were obviously away with the fairies.

The problem started right from the beginning when the first bill contained items with both sets of data on. The real one and the phoney one were mixed on the same piece of paper. Thereafter the data streams remained separated, each generating its own bills. Between 18th January 2008 and 5th January 2009 she was billed for £737.52 of totally phoney electricity. She eventually smelled a rat and protested and on the 8th July 2009 she was refunded £708.24 but without explanation.

But this was by no means the end of the story.  Edf Energy had told my daughter that they thought that the readings from her meter were reversed day for night. The data analysis showed this to be correct as her night consumption was nearly three times the day consumption. My daughter is not a night person. At the time of writing it is not clear whether the meter is actually wrong or the computer data input has got reversed. Either seems highly unlikely but it has happened.  It is interesting to note that in the phoney figures the night consumption was only one and a half times the day consumption.  Thus even the phoney data was switched day for night which suggest the problem is in the computer, not the meter.

It is extremely hard to see how this has happened. The phoney figures were all estimated but so were most of the good figures. It is hard to imagine how you can run two accounts from one set of meter readings – even if they are estimated. There is only one account and its number is consistent throughout.  One can reasonably hypothesise that there is a serious glitch in the computer system producing these bills.

My daughter’s electricity consumption has averaged £32 per month over the last two years and at one time her direct debit had been forced up to £120 per month.  This is hardly the sort of behaviour we should be able to expect from deregulated industries.

I have two other friends one of whom was beset by a different electricity provider for two years and constantly threatened with bailiffs. Eventually the provider went bust and was taken over. About three months later she received a credit for £900 and a note to say she would not need to pay another bill for a year. The other friend received a credit note from his electricity provider, without comment, for £800.

I am no fan of nationalisation but de-regulation certainly seems to have serious problems that need to be addressed. If three of my quite small circle of friends have experienced this then it is probably quite rife. This is a disgrace.

It is quite possible to earn a living by borrowing money at zero interest rate and simply keep recirculating it. This is what the utilities appear to be doing. In any other walk of life it would be called fraud.


March 2010

Colin Walker

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