At the heart of the system
Among the defining characteristics of an efficient market-place is that all participants should be free to make their own choices between the goods or services on offer, basing their decisions on accessible information about quality and transparent pricing. Shopping around for the best deals, in the high-street or online, is something we have come to take for granted.
An excellent start. But what should it actually mean for consumers to “be at the heart of the system”? What should we energy consumers be able to do that we cannot currently do? I think the answer to that is that there is a very great deal that we can’t currently do: pricing is opaque, we can’t choose easily, and to make matters worse many suppliers give us an illusion of choice to such an extent that we may not even realise what we are missing.
Of course we can already buy energy monitors, handheld or tabletop gadgets that give us a real-time read-out of the amount of electricity we are using. They cost around €50 and some energy suppliers even give them away for free. Energy monitors can show our electricity usage in kWh, or cost, or even carbon emissions. They allow us to set daily targets for our electricity use and even programme alarms to warn us when we are about to use too much. Watching the monitor shows which domestic appliances affect our energy bills the most and helps keep electricity consumption under control. But this is an entirely false sense of “control”. Empowering consumers doesn’t just mean giving them gizmos to measure their consumption, it means giving them a proper choice about where they source that consumption from.
And when it comes to switching Utility companies, the market-place gets even less consumer-friendly. All you need to do (and the word “all” should be construed here with considerable irony) is:
1- Find out what choice of suppliers, if any, you have;
2- Read through several pages of tariffs from each supplier and try to work out which is the best deal for you and which has the largest component of renewable energy;
3- Check whether you will incur a fee for cancelling your current energy deal;
4- Submit meter readings;
5- Settle all outstanding bills with the old company;
6- Fill in the appropriate forms on line or on paper and submit them to the old company and the new company.
If you haven’t abandoned the idea completely by this stage, the whole process will take anything from two to six weeks. Factor in the rising cost of energy and it’s no surprise that in some countries the Utilities have achieved the near impossible and become even more hated by their customers than the big banks.
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