400,000 in arrears as energy firms step up drive to install pay meters
THERE are now more than 400,000 households, or one in every four homes, struggling to pay their energy bills, far higher than previously reported.
A spokesman for the energy regulator admitted that the situation had become so bad it seemed like "half the country" has had to agree a payment plan with their energy supplier to tackle their arrears.
Yesterday marked the start of a huge push to install new electronic pay-as-you-go meters in the homes of those at risk of being cut off.
The new meters will be in addition to around 25,000 old token-operated electricity meters. There are 45,000 customers with gas pre-payment meters.
Pre-payment meters allow customers to top-up their energy accounts by buying "credit" at retail outlets, much in the same way as with pre-pay mobile phones.
ESB Networks began installing the new meters yesterday, with an expectation that up to 500 a month would be installed by mid-December, and around 2,000 a month by next year.
A spokesman for the energy regulator said it was hoped to eventually install up to 20,000 gas and electricity meters.
Airtricity claimed ESB Networks did not have the capacity to install the meters fast enough and said its electrical contracting engineering should also be allowed to instal the meters.
The surge in the numbers falling behind on their electricity and gas payments has reached record levels.
A spokesman for the energy regulator, the Commission for Energy Regulation, said: "It seems like half the country is in a payment plan at this stage. It is far higher than anything ever seen before."
Around 240,000 householders have had to agree payment plans with the ESB to tackle outstanding payments. The semi-state company said that around 108,000 of these customers were 60 days or more in arrears.
Some 103,000 gas and electricity customers of Bord Gais are 60 days or more in arrears with their payments.
And 60,000 customers of Airtricity are in arrears on their energy bills, the company confirmed.
This amounts to more than 400,000 householders who have fallen behind on their payments to various suppliers of gas and electricity.
There are around 1.7 million households in the State, which means more than a quarter of all households are in arrears.
People at risk of being cut off from electricity or gas suppliers must be be offered a payment plan to tackle the arrears or they can agree to have a pre-payment meter installed in their home.
Airtricity managing director Stephen Wheeler said: "The provision of an adequate supply of pre-payment meters to the market, which Airtricity has been campaigning for for over two years, is absolutely critical if we are to ensure an effective and meaningful solution to the problem of mounting energy debt."
He added that installing 2,000 meters a month into the homes of those at risk of disconnection was inadequate.
More than one- third of energy customers in the North use pay-as-you-go meters, Mr Wheeler pointed out.
There were 2,901 residential and commercial disconnections in August, compared with an average of over 1,600 in the first six months of this year.
However, year-on-year the number of gas and electricity disconnections has fallen.
Energy suppliers will now be told if a customer seeking to switch their account has an outstanding debt of €250 or more. This "debt flagging" means they will then be able to choose to accept or reject the new customer.