One-in-10 switchers returning to the ESB
ONE-in-10 households that moved from the ESB to cheaper energy providers has returned to the dominant electricity supplier.
A total of 692,000 homes have moved from the ESB since January 2009, but 70,000 have since returned.
And the semi-state company said yesterday that people who made the switch to alternative suppliers including Bord Gais and Airtricity left owing ESB bills totalling €14m.
This "closed debt" can only be recouped if legal proceedings are taken.
Sources said the number of people returning to the ESB is running at an average of 1,000 a week. In one week last July, 1,229 people switched back. In the same week, 7,431 moved to alternative providers.
"People come back for a whole host of customer service reasons," a source said. "It could be because tariffs change, or they don't pay their bills and they're cut off. We are obliged to provide a service to people, so many come back to us.
"Most of the customers who leave us are very good. The average consumption level is for family homes and they're good payers.
"People that won't pay are subject to legal proceedings. It's costing us money to deal with them. The current arrangement is the customer leaves us with an unpaid bill, and all we can do is write letters until we're blue in the face.
"There is currently €14m in closed debt arising from customers switching to alternative suppliers, but it's important to note that this will not necessarily translate in to bad debt. If they return, we enter payment arrangements with them."
The ESB is not allowed to set its own electricity prices because it is the dominant player in the electricity market, having about 1.5 million customers.
It must lose hundreds of thousands of customers to allow the market to be de-regulated, which would allow all energy suppliers to set their own prices.
This is expected to happen early next year, when the ESB holds just 600,000 customer accounts.
The ESB expects to write off €20m in bad debts this year, of which €15m is owed by residential customers and the remainder from business.
The company cuts off an average of 900 customers a month, but fewer in the winter. Disconnection was only carried out as a "last resort".
"Disconnections through the winter months are significantly lower," a spokesman said. "Disconnections and non-payment were always an issue. We've had 18 months before disconnections, but the average is now about six months."
The Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) said it had no data on the reasons why customers returned to the ESB, but that it could be due to discounts offered from alternative suppliers coming to an end.
"The CER will shortly be doing a customer survey which will look at reasons for switching back," a spokesman said.
The number of disconnections peaked last July, when 2,353 were cut-off. Last month, 897 people lost their power.