300,000 have difficulty paying energy bills, as costs set to rise again
MORE than 300,000 households are struggling to pay their energy bills, and using meters to keep track of mounting costs.
Thousands of people are now having pay-as-you-go meters installed in their homes as a way to deal with high energy bills, and are using the meters to slowly pay down arrears on their electricity and gas bills.
Figures compiled by the Irish Independent show that more than 314,000 customers of the ESB/Electric Ireland, Bord Gais, Airtricity and Flogas are having difficulty meeting their repayments.
The shocking new figures come as Bord Gais was granted an 8.5pc rise in gas prices which will push the average home's annual costs up by €70 to close to €1,000 a year.
Airtricity said it was reviewing its gas prices. Electricity prices are also set to rise by around €28 a year after the regulator increased the charges for use of the electricity network.
Last night, the Society of St Vincent de Paul condemned the decision of the energy regulator to allow the Bord Gais price rise. The hike follows an increase of 22pc granted last year.
The society said both of these increases compound an unfolding crisis in the household energy market.
It spends €8.8m in 2010 paying electricity and gas bills for people unable to pay heir bills -- helping to avoid disconnections.
Energy experts said last night that consumer arrears were staying stubbornly high despite huge efforts by the four suppliers to get people back on track through payment plans, and offering to install pay-as-you-go meters free of charge.
A payment plan is where a householder agrees to pay down their arrears, usually weekly.
The latest figures reveal:
• ESB has 160,000 customers who have agreed to repayment plans for electricity. The company said 10pc of its customers are in arrears. It would not reveal how many this number was, but it is estimated to be at least 100,000.
• Bord Gais said 40,617 of its 346,000 residential electricity customers are 60 days or more behind on their bills. So far it has agreed 46,000 repayment plans.
• Airtricity said 70,000 of both electricity and gas ustomers were in arrears, with debts of more than €250 each.
• Flogas said 1,485 of its customers were behind on their gas bills.
• Another 42,770 gas customers of Bord Gais were in arrears, with 20,000 now in repayment plans.
The State-owned Bord Gais has been one of the most active at installing pay-as-you-go meters, with 60,000 meters put into homes so far.
These allow people to better control their bills. The householder buys credit in a retail outlet and punches in the numbers into the meter. For those in arrears, the meters are set so that some of the credit they buy each time goes to clear the outstanding bills.
Last year, the utility providers persuaded the regulator to introduce a new system that makes it harder for consumers who run up arrears on their electricity or gas bills to switch to another operator before settling their accounts.
The energy regulator decided to bring in a new system of "flagging" any gas or electricity account where there were arrears.
This is likely to put a stop to so-called debt-hopping by customers who switch to other providers before settling their existing bills.