Roll-out of electricity meters 'is inadequate'
The roll-out of 'pre-payment' meters for some of the 433,000 electricity customers in arrears has been described as "completely inadequate" to deal with the scale of the arrears problem.
Householders can no longer be cut off unless they are offered the installation of a pre-payment meter.
ESB Networks began installing them this week at a rate of 20 a week so that distressed customers can measure their energy use -- but this response is simply not good enough, according to the boss of ESB rival Airtricity.
The ESB says it hopes to have the rate of installations up to 500 a week by the end of next month.
The keypad meters, which operate like phone top-ups, mean that customers can regulate their electricity supply more effectively. They are only being offered to customers who are in trouble with their bills and agree payment plans with suppliers.
"You have to be in arrears to have a meter installed. They are for people in urgent need and who are suffering hardship," said an ESB spokesman.
Before a customer has their electricity cut off they must be offered a pre-payment plan by their supplier -- and both sides must agree terms before the meter is installed.
At the moment, there are 433,000 electricity customers in various states of arrears -- 240,000 with the ESB, 133,000 with Bord Gais Energy and 60,000 with Airtricity.
"It seems like half the country is in a payment plan at this stage, it is far higher than anything we've ever seen before," a spokesman for the Energy Regulator said.
Stephen Wheeler, managing director of Airtricity, said: "We want a situation where customers in hardship will no longer be at risk from disconnection. While we are doing all we can to agree payment plans with customers in distress, the reality is that there is a completely inadequate supply of pre-payment meters available to suppliers."
Mr Wheeler said if they were given an opportunity by the Energy Regulator, they could double the number of meters installed per month through the use of Airtricity Utility Solutions.
He also said that it was "critical" that this be addressed before the high energy use winter period.
However, ESB Networks, which has the task of installing the meters, says that one of the difficulties has been sourcing an adequate supply of meters, which are coming from India, and they hope to have the supply up to 2,000 a month in early December.
It was also believed that the Commission for Energy Regulation had authorised the purchase of 17,500 old-style 'token' meters at a cost of €1m which some energy companies say are obsolete.