SAM Koster says that if the average power bill was a medical patient, it would be sent straight to Accident and Emergency. Photo Sven Carlsson OS0056-01

CARRYING around a briefcase that contains 30 power bills, Opotiki resident Sam Koster is on a mission.

“People are prevented from understanding their power bill by their power bill,” he said.

“The more power bills I look at, the more I realise there’s something seriously wrong.”

Mr Koster, who is a former GP, said many of the Opotiki people he had come across didn’t realise they could ask to be on a low-user, fixed-charge tariff.

“This option was introduced in 2004 under the Labour Government led by Helen Clark,” he said.

The legislation states that “the purpose of this regulation is to ensure that average consumers pay no more per year on a low fixed charge tariff option than on any alternative tariff option”.

In the North Island, the usage threshold is 8000 kilowatt hours per year, meaning customers who use less than this can request to be put on the low-usage tariff.

The fixed charge for this option is limited to 30 cents per day, excluding GST, and with many companies billing line charges at more than $2 per day, represents a significant reduction for the low-volume users.

However, power retailers would charge a higher per-unit cost for the power supplied, for instance it could be $0.34 per kWh instead of $0.24 kWh, which might be the charge on the standard plan.

Typically, these two plans are designed to converge at the 8000 kWh threshold.

This means that if you use less than 8000 kWh per year, you will save money by requesting a change to the low-user tariff.
However, Mr Koster said getting residents onto the right tariff was only one of the issues he had come across.

“This all came about when I decided to install solar power,” he said.

“Other people wanted solar and I started looking at their power bills.”

Mr Koster said this exercise had led to the realisation that power bills were “designed to obfuscate”.

“No two power bills are the same and the idea of comparing one power bill to another is impossible.”

In many cases, electricity consumers were unable to ascertain from their power bill if they were on a three-phase or a single-phase supply.

“Many houses used to be on orchards, and this can mean they’ve had three-phase power, or they’ve had a powerful pump,” he said. “Horizon makes it difficult to change from three-phase to single-phase, typically charging $200 for this.”

Mr Koster said that one recent example he had come across was a farmer who had amalgamated several farms into one.

“He was receiving five different power bill and we saved him $5000 per year by rationalising the supply,” he said.

“We have one case here in town where they have three different companies supplying electricity into the same business.”

The cost of adjusting the supply, including any required changes to the wiring, would turn out much more cost-effective in the end – compared with paying fixed charges to several suppliers.

Mr Koster said that for some strange reason, all mistakes he had found on power bills were “leading to the power company making more money, never less”.

However, his ongoing battle had led him to a position of “winning” after putting his first solar panel up five years ago.

Now producing 1000 kWh each month, his solar installation is supplying to the grid. “My monthly bill isn’t a bill, but a credit of $10,” Mr Koster said.

While the practical work of installing solar panels was easy, the bureaucracy was anything but.

“You may need help at the start,” Mr Koster said.

“I’ve now done my own installation and five more.”

Working with a builder and an electrician, Mr Koster said he was available to assist Opotiki residents with deciphering their power bill and making a course through the solar-panel installation bureaucracy.

“New solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years and if they produce less than 80 per cent of their stated output at that time it becomes a warranty issue.”

Mr Koster said he expected there would be a huge growth in solar panel usage over the years.

“By installing a solar panel you can also reduce your dependency on the grid so that you come down into the low-usage tariff,” he said.