ALMOST 50 homes and businesses had their electricity cut off every day between August 2009 and December 2010, because they couldn't pay their bills, shocking figures obtained by this newspaper reveal.
There was a huge spike in the numbers being disconnected during 2010 for non-payment of amounts owed, with the number of properties cut off peaking at over 2,300 during last July.
Electricity providers such as the ESB and Bord Gais have said the "de-energising" of customers is a last resort. They urged any customer who is struggling to meet their bills to contact them immediately so that a payment plan can be arranged.
In total, during the 18-month period, 20,699 disconnections -- an average of 46 a day -- were enforced by suppliers because of non-payment of their accounts. Included in that figure was 16,716 disconnections of domestic premises, figures from the Commission for Energy Regulation reveal.
The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs) said the number of people being disconnected reflected what they were already hearing from people contacting their helpline. They called on energy providers to show restraint in disconnecting households.
A spokesperson for Mabs said: "We feel that in today's climate there is an onus on everybody to distinguish between people who can't pay and people who won't pay.
"We'd be looking for the same forbearance that is now evident in the credit industry to also be shown by all power and utility companies."
Fine Gael's deputy finance spokesman Brian Hayes, who supplied the figures, said they highlighted the deep difficulty that householders and business people are having in keeping the lights on.
He also said they called into question the adequacy of the regulator.
"These figures highlight the lack of ability of the regulator to do its job. It has to be asked why the regulator is there at all," he commented.
Responding to our queries, the ESB said it encouraged customers who were experiencing difficulties to contact it as early as possible.
"We work with our customers to arrange payment plans and budget payments to avoid the necessity for disconnection. We also work closely with MABS, St Vincent de Paul and other voluntary agencies in assisting customers who are experiencing difficulty with their bills."
The ESB said it had entered into over 150,000 mutually acceptable Budget Payment arrangements in 2010.
Disconnection would only arise, it said, when all other avenues had been exhausted. The vast majority of customers who are disconnected have their supply restored within a very short period of time and in ESB's experience 40 to 50 per cent of disconnections relates to vacant premises.
For its part, Bord Gais said it took the issue of energy affordability and disconnections very seriously. The number of customers having difficulty paying their gas and electricity bills had risen sharply over the last year.
"There is absolutely no need for disconnections," it said. "Customers who find themselves in difficulty have the option of setting up a payment plan with us or installing a prepayment meter.
"If the customer agrees to one of these options, they will not be disconnected. Disconnection is a last resort and usually only occurs when the customer refuses to engage with us and ignores all communications from us."
Bord Gais said there was also a large spike in the agreed payment plans being set up.
"Payment plans are usually set up for customers who having engaged with us or an agency on their behalf (Mabs or SVdP) recognise that there is an issue and work with us to agree a payment plan thus avoiding disconnection."