MORE than 315,000 ESB customers who are behind in their payments entered into special arrangements last year so they can pay off their electricity debt in small instalments, the Sunday Independent has learned.
The new figures show that wage cuts, stealth taxes and unemployment have left hundreds of thousands of families unable to pay for the basics on time.
Remarkably, more than 400 ESB customers a month are agreeing to have "pay as you go" meters installed in their homes so they can manage their energy debts and avoid having their power cut off.
While a report due out later this week by the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) will show that the number of disconnections of gas and electricity is in decline, it is clear that the recession has plunged many families into desperate straits where the arrival of gas and electricity bills in the post is greeted with despair.
ESB sources confirmed that the power supplier is now working closely with the Society of St Vincent De Paul, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) and other voluntary agencies to help customers in difficulties.
New figures supplied to the Sunday Independent show that during 2010, Electric Ireland, ESB's energy supply and home services division, entered into 160,000 special payment arrangements with customers as a means of assisting the management of their energy bills.
But that number almost doubled last year to 315,000 special payment arrangements. Budget cuts and increased charges and taxes which came into effect last month will heap further pressure on families.
An ESB spokesman told the Sunday Independent that the new pay-as-you-go metering system allows customers in financial difficulty to manage their current usage while dealing with their arrears.
"On average, up to 400 Electric Ireland customers per month are agreeing to the installation of a pay-as-you-go meter as a means of managing their energy debt and avoiding disconnection," he said.
Electric Ireland also offers customers a Household Budget Price Plan which gives customers a discount on standard unit rates of up to six per cent if they enter into a special payment arrangement or sign up to An Post's Household Budget Scheme.
Figures compiled by CER show that 11,773 customers had their electricity cut off between January and August 2011 -- 81 per cent of them domestic customers.
Gas was disconnected to 3,516 customers in the first eight months of last year -- 84 per cent of them households.
However, the disconnection figures may be misleading. ESB estimates that 60 per cent of disconnections are for vacant or abandoned properties.
Figures out later this week will show a fall in disconnections. All the major energy suppliers have a self-enforced moratorium on disconnection over the Christmas and new year periods.
Last week, the Sunday Independent revealed that families are returning to solid fuels like coal and briquettes to heat their homes one night at a time.