A Solar Installer’s Guide to Beating Confusing Electricity Tariffs

switchboard and retail meter

As a solar installer, I’ve had to deal with electricity retailers a lot. So much so, that I sometimes wonder what I did in a past life to deserve this. In this post I’ll share my frustrations but also offer 3 solutions to get the better of the retailers and their increasingly incomprehensible tariffs.

Obscure Pricing By Design

Electricity retailers will reel you in with pay-on-time discounts, flashy bundles and promises of low rates. But if you strip away that alluring wrapping you find block pricing, low daily thresholds, high daily charges and low feed-in tariffs.

Pricing is opaque and complex by design so that comparing plans becomes so difficult people just give up.

Even Experts Can Be Blindsided By Electricity Pricing

If you’ve been bamboozled by electricity retailers, don’t be too hard on yourself.

Professor Bruce Mountain arguably knows more about electricity in Australia than anybody else. Despite a career in energy economics, the retail electricity system failed even his incredible expertise.

After writing his own program to compare electricity plans, Bruce signed up for what he thought was the best deal. Some weeks later, he noticed a discrepancy… the retailer had instead put him on their most expensive plan.

Your Smart Meter Data Is Yours

There is light at the end of the tunnel. As smart metering is rolled out, Australians have access to their own detailed data, by law. So retailers have nowhere to hide.

But Bills Are Incomprehensible

The problem is deciphering your smart meter data.

Time-of-use pricing now means that a back-of-the-envelope calculation is practically impossible. When the price of energy changes four times each day, neither your smart meter data or your bill makes sense to anyone but the most committed number crunchers.

My standard approach to my electricity accounts is to smash them flat with maximum solar. When my most recent bill arrived, I had a look at the actual numbers, and then proceeded to spend over an hour on web chat trying in vain to decipher which number was attached to which register.

I could reconcile figure B1 as being export, because that matched with the 009 register on the retail meter. I knew ‘anytime’ was register 003 and ‘controlled load’ was register 007 (for hot water). However, the difference between figures E1 and E2 was a mystery.

electricity bill

They could Simply put 3 words instead of 3 secret codes.

Time-of-use pricing means peak and off-peak rates change on register 003, so I had no way of knowing what the hot water service cost to run. Neither did Simply Energy.

There’s no information on the website on how to read the meter, and no way to decipher the bill without having a whole separate document to hand (apparently it’s included in the welcome pack).

After 19 minutes of online chat, I got an answer about which secret code was which meter element. For the next hour or so, we went around in circles, with the operator refusing to explain how they knew this, or where I could find the information myself.

They could easily print it on the bill, but they don’t. Is it any wonder people don’t trust them?

Three Ways To Find The Cheapest Tariff

#1 Energy Made Easy / Victorian Energy Compare (Free)

After a slow start, and millions of tax payer dollars spent, the government’s solution to ridiculously complex tariffs is finally worth using, if you have a smart meter.

You go to the Energy Made Easy or Victorian Energy Compare website, enter your unique NMI number (found on your bill), and the website will pull your detailed usage data direct from your meter.

Then it will advise if you could save money by switching to a cheaper plan. They claim to take everything into account including feed-in-tariffs, standing charges and time of use rates.

Finn did it just now and it told him he could save $100 per year by switching from Energy Locals to Energy Australia (mostly due to getting 8.5c feed-in vs. 5c). It took about 3 minutes.

#2 Solar Analytics Plan Optimiser (Paid)

If you pay for Solar Analytics monitoring and opt in to their Plan Optimiser, you will get an email every time they find a plan that could save you money based on your exact usage and exports. It saves you going to Energy made Easy regularly and works like a dream.

#3 Bill Hero (Paid)

If you don’t have Solar Analytics monitoring, but still want someone to constantly hunt for cheaper plans on your behalf, automated comparison service Bill Hero 1 can leap tall bills in a single bound.

It works by automatically forwarding your electricity bill straight into their server, where it’s compared against the market. If it meets a savings threshold (that you set) they’ll notify you with a link to change your retail deal. There is an annual subscription involved but they guarantee that they’ll save you more money than the subscription costs.

When Energy Retailers Hobble Solar Installations

When it came time to put solar on my own house, it should have been a simple matter for Simply Energy to remotely program my smart meter. Like any good solar installer, I submitted the paperwork involved, because even though it’s technically the customer’s responsibility, the average consumer really isn’t familiar enough with the process to make it work smoothly.

After some weeks of crickets, I called Simply Energy to establish what was going on. They couldn’t tell me.

In the end, I turned my inverter on, carefully checked different registers on the meter and saw one of them was counting up at the same rate the inverter was. The meter was indeed programmed, but Simply Energy had simply no idea.

Remember kids: When getting a utility meter changed or programmed, do not swap retailers until the job is finished.

Be Vigilant

Ye olde mechanical meters are not infallible, and some shonks have been known to attach very large and strong magnets to them, to stop the meter spinning. Unfortunately, this ruined the calibration and made them run fast when the magnet wasn’t present.

So people have found that their consumption might be the same, but the bill goes up or down, simply because a new smart meter is in fact accurate.

However it’s also possible (and arguably far more likely) that your retailer is confusing one register for another, adding figures together, billing you for solar export, or just making fundamental errors like connecting solar inverters to off-peak circuits, so they only work for a limited number of hours.

If your retailer has misconfigured your smart meter, that’s going to hobble all of the three plan comparison tools mentioned earlier, so it’s vital that you are vigilant.

Mistakes do happen, and perhaps I’m biased. But I can’t remember the last time I saw an electricity company make an error in the customer’s favour.

Footnotes

  1. Full disclosure; you get a discount and we get a kickback from that Bill Hero link
About Anthony Bennett

Anthony joined the SolarQuotes team in 2022. He’s a licensed electrician, builder, roofer and solar installer who for 14 years did jobs all over SA - residential, commercial, on-grid and off-grid. A true enthusiast with a skillset the typical solar installer might not have, his blogs are typically deep dives that draw on his decades of experience in the industry to educate and entertain. Read Anthony's full bio.

Comments

  1. Peter Bawden says

    I have used a site called Wattever with good success in finding the best plan

  2. Remember when Angus Taylor (or was it Josh) told us they were going to make our bills easier to understand and the DMO was a Big Stick?

    I use a spreadsheet and compare past usage against ‘Plans’. I frankly don’t find Energy made Easy very easy at all.

    And I was today’s years old when I discovered plans with ‘controlled load’ are more expensive than plans without. If the DMO can be believed. Our solar HWS needs very little grid boosting so I might look at ditching the Controlled load.

    • I ditched the control load some time ago. I does cost: you need a special licensed sparky to remove the meter. At least in my case, because then I had a separate off-grid meter. (I am in NSW). Now I have a Smart meter, so I guess it is all software (or firmware in the energy meter).
      In my case, I used a battery backed switchboard mounted timeswitch . You MUST put a contactor after the timeswitch. (as an ex-Enova Energy Coach, I saw a few welded contacts in HW timeswitches: they might be rated at 20A, but they are not reliable in this application). I also like to change to 2400W HWS elements if the elements require changing, so the demand is less on the Solar PV. I have found 4 hrs to be enough time (eg 10am to 2pm). The occasional cloudy day power cost is minimal.
      The other thing for people building new houses, or renovating is to distribute the HWS systems to minimise long hot water pipe runs. One system for the Kitchen/Laundry & a second for the Main bathroom. One can even feed hot water to these systems from a Heat pump or Solar HWS. This means the cold water in the pipe gets saved in the secondary system, then heated when the time switch turns on.

      • i ditched controlled load and installed catch diverter, here in Victoria 3.6kW element works for me. When comparing deals for electricity, supply charge is mostly first consideration, then cents per kWh then feedin taffif.

        • Anthony Bennett says

          Hi Chris,

          Greencatch diverters can have controlled load connected as well, except in Queensland where they police things too much.

          • This was not possible for my meter set-up, at least not as cost effective. The electricity provider (powercor) would have had to run another wire for this to the meter which would have cost much more $ . Was bit unsure at first but no regrets. Catch power advised sparky to do this way and I agreed.

  3. Steve ward says

    Love this article!
    I have many iterations of comparison excel sheets going back to the 1990’s – I thought that “I am loosing the plot 🙂”

    I find the different registers very confusing!

    I have spent 3 months with Amber support and Tesla trying to figure out why they report so differently! thinking it may be the reason that their optimising doesn’t work for me.
    I did see the exact figure SOMEWHERE in the Tesla installer app once – but have never managed to find my way back to that spot..

  4. Colin Martin says

    I find Wattever very effective.. it stores all of your plan enquiries and when you go into your profile, reload your latest report, its immediately updated with today’s rates.

    Tracking my retailer it went to +19% the other day and today -7%. A moving target but you know where you’re at

  5. I had a similar experience when my solar and smart meter was installed. At that time, the smart meter programer could not work out if my plan was P1 or P2 because I previously had off peak day and night. So he put in P1. Years later when I questioned my bill and what plan I was on and what was I paying for I (and them) got confused with jargon. I was now on controlled load, but was that day night or what? The Ombudsman got involved, I got $750 and changed retailers. I still dont know what is what as I went from a demand plan to a straight 24 hour plan with controlled load and Amy hot water has always been there. However my pool and spa switch on and off at odd times so I just assume I am on controlled load and at the mercy of the provider.

    • If you can manage it, & have the Solar PV available, it is usually advantageous to ditch the off peak controlled load. BUT you need a way to manage the loads. This can be as simple as Timeswitches & contactors for each load, or using Electronic switches controlled by Software such as Home Assistant, which can read all the datas from the PV inverters & any other monitoring installed, then be programmed to use excess energy.
      Be aware that Pool pumps will also weld timeswitch contacts. But at least you can hear the pool running! (Unlike the HWS, which is a quiet consumer). I would love to know of a reliable timeswitch for the pool: I have yet to find a plugged timeswitch that has a contactor built in. (Ended up building one from the scrap bin! Mine is a timer switch set for the pool ON time, that is manually set with a push button. I find the pool is checked at the same time, but I am retired, so home mostly.)

      • Thanks for your comment Doug. I have rewired so I have an isolating switch that I can select controlled load or mains from. From there I have wireless plugs (they handle the current OK) hooked up so I can control times etc from an app. With the pump I usually run it at night but the solar is a different beast. I will look at Home assistant though to see if I can further automate the process.

  6. Bruce Lade says

    Thanks Anthony this is a very important article. I have friends and relatives who frankly have few technical skills or knowledge of how meter register configuration could even be an issue. I did not know it could be but I get the point. A trusting soul might assume the hardware and configuration are all standardised both ends, but clearly not?? Not only that but how they are assigned at providers end may vary??? and hence how their bill is even compiled/ calculated. But they are beavering away comparing bills and meter readings and power monitors the government (Vic) gave away for free (which just monitor meter pulses not which register is storing which data). It is not a hopeful article for those actually trying to optimise their billing and plan choice?

  7. Hi Anthony. Regarding why you can’t see how much your hot water cost. Some of the blame for this lies with SAPN, rather than Simply Energy. SAPN are actively removing the controlled load tariff code from sites, so your hot water now has the same tariff code as your general consumption and will automatically get combined in the bill. When they used to have different tariff codes, each one would have been a different billing line.
    And note that E1, E2 and B1 can have different definitions for another customer with a different setup. They are not fixed mappings across the market.

  8. We lived off grid for 40 years, 6 years ago we moved into town, the house we purchased had 5kw of solar & connected to AGL so we stayed with them. During this time we had Iselect check out plans, they found a better plan with AGL, so we changed plans & stayed. 14 months ago we moved into our new home, installed 13.3 Kw a standard 5kw inverter & 5 Kw hybrid + 16.2 Kw battery. We are on a flat $0.2551 + $0.1385 demand tariff between 4pm/9pm, standard 5 cent feed in. I’m not opposed to the demand tariff but I feel that the normalising ie, taking the highest day amount used & multiplying it by the number of days even if no power was drawn from the grid during those hrs a little rich, one can’t help thinking that they don’t want people to have batteries & assist in lowering the peak load times. When I first became aware of this I changed my billing from quarterly to monthly.
    Smart meters should make billing equitable not provide an avenue for topping up the coffers.

  9. Nathan holt says

    At least this part of dealing with retailers is easy for me.
    I just don’t get a choice of retailers its Ergon or Ergon.
    Technically when I looked it up one other company still offers “standard contracts” to CQ but i cant even tell if they actually cover my region because all it says is to phone them because they cant be bothered to put any real details in their own website.
    Any other previously available options have since either left or been shut down by the government.
    Ideally my idea is enough solar/batteries that the grid connection is just an emergency backup and the feed-in is primarily used just to pay off the connection fee.

  10. I wish I could use my meter information but when I went solar, naturally I got a smart meter, my previous consumption was no longer available.
    Prices went up recently so I thought , well it’s been over 12 months I can use my meter data.
    Wrong.
    The smart meter was changed as apparently it was full of ants. So once again the meter number has changed and I can’t use the comparison sites to auto load the data.
    Spreadsheets again.
    Obfuscation at its best.

    • Anthony Bennett says

      Hi Greg,

      You billing is based on the NMI (National Metering Identifier) so the actual serial number of the meter shouldn’t affect billing or data history. I would explore it again because they can’t just tell you there’s no billing history when you’re still at the same address.

  11. Rowan Holden says

    Retailer pricing plans have been confusing for years. In the end I created my own spreadsheet so I could get a proper handle on how they really compared. I now use Energy Made Easy as a starting point and then put likely candidates into the spreadsheet.

    I find Energy Made Easy recommendations don’t offer me the best plans. I consume very little grid power, perhaps 3 kWh/day and export an average of 17 kWh/day. Until very recently the best plans for me have invariably been those with the best FiT offerings yet that is hardly ever what Energy Made Easy serves up to me. I have used both the Energy Made Easy estimation wizard and I have uploaded my bills but neither returned me the cheapest offers, my solar export always seems discounted.

    That has left me wondering if others have had similar experiences and, if so, what is happening at Energy Made Easy? It is easy to point the finger of blame at my spreadsheet, but I reckon it is telling me the truth. I guess if no one agrees with me on this one I’ll have to go back to the Excel class again!

  12. Doug Home says

    I am not an installer but I am a retail hopper who likes to make decisions based on facts, not b/s.

    My Energex Smart Meters went in March 2010. I have an Energex Mark 7A as my Daily Use and a Mark 7C as my Controlled Load1 meter. It took me about a year (and 2 calls to Energex technicians) to figure out what the registers represented; because the displayed meter registers (001, 040,101, etc) do not align with the registers the retailers use (E1, B1. Q1, etc).

    Not one of the now five electricity retailers I have used in the last 14 years was able or willing to tell me (the alleged owner of the data) how to get the two registry systems to align.
    I eventually figured out:
    E1 = 001 Daily Use
    B1 = 040 Solar Feed-in
    Q1 = 101 Actual Anytime Use??
    K1 = 240 Actual Solar Feed-in??
    Etc.

    Knowing this, I was able to double check the billed meter readings with my own monthly meter readings. And challenge as required. Later my battery monitoring app helped

    All worked well until 8 months ago when for some reason my retailer “couldn’t” get wireless data and started to guess. (Derived Data) Why? Who the f knows? I responded by sending them weekly updates of my actual readings.

    Re Energy Made Easy.
    Be aware that the best plans are frequently not shown on that site.
    When you find a likely plan (I put three figures through a little spreadsheet) be sure to note the full plan identification code. Use this code in all correspondence with the retailer. And check they are sticking to that code. I have had one swifty pulled and one attempted where the clowns got cute and tried to sign me up with a different (more expensive) plan.

    A group of Adelaide scientists led by Dr Ali Pourmousavi Kani recently published a paper in Cell Reports 5(2), 101830 titled “Unleashing the benefits of smart grids..” where they highlight the failings of smart meter use to consumers in Australia. I would recommend writing to them pointing out just how poorly smart meter data is being collected and used.

  13. Yeah, I thought choosing a solar system was complex enough, then afterwards going through the offers from various retailers / energy made easy etc, wow, that’s possibly twice as confusing / difficult to sift through the options.
    “Obscure pricing by design” indeed.

    Best thing I found is stay with your current energy provider, the devil you know, get on the best plan they have for your new situation, and monitor how your solar is working for you as time progresses.
    Then make some informed decisions.
    I found that when you cut through the offers here in SA, there was virtually nil difference in providers with various feed ins, tariffs, supply charges.

    Here we have a number of ‘competitors’, while my brother in Nth Qld has one retailer supplier, just one.
    We are pretty much on TOU, peak rate at around 50c, feed in 6c.
    He gets 33c flat, and 13c feed in, go figure !

  14. I am a little surprised that none of these compare sites seem to take into a
    account that you may have a battery nor an EV. Currently I am on a TOU account but never use power in the peak period as the battery will supply enough power to get me through that time. So I am wondering if I would be better off diching the TOU account to have a lower daily supply rate as I use very little grid supply at all.

    • Colin Martin says

      I use Wattever and just ran a test, not using ToU and the best result with the lower Supply Charge was 11.3% higher than my current Retailer. My spreadsheet has my current 12 months of SmartMeter data. Even though the Supply charge went from $1.10 to $0.71 the usage rate went from 17.82c to 23.16 and that’s on OVO.

      We have 3 x Powerwall 2 batteries and schedule, that Solar charges them. No EV.

      We are on Tango in Melbourne and waiting for their new rates. But Wattever shows Tango as -8.5% on our current rates. We have been negative billing for the last 5 months. Only on ToU for 8 months, so Winter will be our challenge.

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