Do you find your power bill confusing? Well like so many people, I do. For such an essential service, it’s baffling that my bill is hard to navigate and is missing some vital information – like the name of the power plan I’m on.

The Consumer Advocacy Council is the watchdog for small electricity consumers, and we’ve just completed a project to determine what consumers want from their power bills. Turns out, no matter which retailer they are with, they want simple, clear information and to be told they are on the right plan for their power usage.

And guess what? Electricity retailers seem to be very upset that we’ve had the gall to point out to them that their bills are not consistently helping consumers understand their bill and save money.

In comments that appear to defend the current confusion that helps retailer profits, the Electricity Retailers Association said; 'Some of the Consumer Advocacy Council’s suggestions, while well-meaning, would be very difficult and expensive to implement, which could see the unintended consequence of costs being passed on to consumers'.

Difficult? Consistent, clear information on bills is required of all electricity retailers in Europe, the United States and Australia. Why would it be so difficult here to provide clear and consistent bills? Costs to make bills simpler? Costs to help their customers? Oh dear, let’s not make life difficult for the big retailers even though their profits are growing ever larger. Are retailers so out of touch with the needs of their customers and the requirements of businesses that supply an essential service, like electricity?

You would think in a cost-of-living crisis, now more than ever, retailers should be doing all they can to help their customers save money. The power bill is one of the big household costs many of us worry about – indeed 68% of us worry about our electricity costs.

Deborah Hart, Council Chair

All retailers should be telling their customers now on a regular basis if they are on the best plan for their consumption. Under the voluntary Consumer Care Guidelines set up by the regulator of the market, the Electricity Authority and agreed by retailers, retailers are expected to make efforts to ensure customers are on the 'best pricing plan'. Trouble is, it’s voluntary, so only some retailers are doing it.

Budgeting agencies that help some consumers manage bills tell us this doesn’t always happen and so consumers end up paying more than they should.

Here’s how it would work. Every 3 months, somewhere prominently on your bill, this best plan notice would state if you could save money by switching to a better plan.

Australia has just begun to do that and good on them. We know from our own research that 9 out of 10 consumers would really appreciate help like that because right now there’s a confusing array of plans on offer.

How much could be saved? Quite a lot we reckon. We know from the Electricity Price Review; many consumers are on the wrong plan. To be conservative, if 10% of consumers could save just $100 a year, that would be $20 million in total going into consumer pockets instead of retailer bank accounts.

There’s a whole bunch of other information that should be prioritised on your bill too like the name of the plan, the unique identifier for your property, the account number, the amount due and when, contact information for Utilities Disputes, the free dispute resolution scheme for consumers and a link to Powerswitch, the site that helps consumers compare power plans. That information should not be confused with other less vital information, and it would help consumers to use Powerswitch and compare retailers.

All consumers need now is for the Electricity Authority to compel retailers to make their bills consistently clear and include a Best Plan Notice. It has the power to do that now, pardon the pun.

Bills shouldn’t be a riddle. Come on retailers, do the right thing by your customers. Help them understand their bills and save money.

Deborah Hart, Council Chair

And if customers are happier, maybe they will keep buying power from you. At least they will be able to make better decisions. That actually would be good for competition, and good for all of us.

This opinion piece was originally published on the NZ Herald website (paywalled) on 29 September 2023.