The steep rise in energy prices has led to a large increase in complaints to the Federal Energy Ombudsman.
During the 2021 operational year, the Federal Ombudsman Service for Energy received a total of 9,088 complaints (36.9% higher than 2020), of which 73% were Dutch-language complaints, 26.8% were French-language complaints, and 0.2% were German-language complaints.
According to the Ombudsman Service, this increase in complaints can mostly be attributed to the steep rise in energy prices since the second half of 2021.
“For many customers, the price increases are a ‘wake-up call’, meaning they have re-examined their energy contract and the energy prices they are subscribed to. The ombudsman service started receiving an unusually high number of complaints about rising advance bills and changes in energy contracts (from fixed to variable) particularly from September 2021” , states Eric Houtman, Dutch-speaking energy ombudsman.
The questions, complaints and reports received in 2021 mainly concerned:
- energy prices, such as increases in advance bills, changes in energy prices and contracts (22.7%);
- sales and market practices from energy suppliers (18.8%) who have increasingly made use of digital communication and other tools since the corona crisis;
- meter problems, with many complaints centred around the mandatory installation of the digital meter in Flanders, as well as regular complaints about the processing and rectification of meter data for annual recording/forecasting, defective meters, moving house, or when a house is vacated, etc. (16.4%);
- invoicing problems, such as (late) delivery of energy invoices and a perception that they are over-complicated (10%);
- payment problems for the payment of energy bills such as instalment plans, (non-payment of) repayments, administrative costs, payment via direct debit, guarantee schemes, (threat of) cancellation of an energy contract, or disconnection due to default (8.6%);
- Public (ecological) service obligations, with many complaints at the beginning of 2021, concerning the consequences of the digital meter for solar panel owners in Flanders (counter no longer goes backwards from 1 March 2021, premiums for solar panels, etc.) (8.2%).
The other complaints concerned problems related to a change of supplier (5.6%), quality of service (5.2%) and a number of regional competences (3.5%) such as connections and disconnections to the distribution network, power failures and distribution network tariffs.
Notable complaint types that saw rises include:
- meter problems (+29.4%) with many expressing annoyance about the mandatory installation of the digital meter in Flanders with the consequences for owners of solar panels who are no longer entitled to a (virtual) reversing digital meter since 1 March 2021;
- customer service (+85.4%) because more end customers contacted their energy supplier due to the increase in energy prices, which overloaded the energy suppliers’ customer services departments; this was especially acute during the final months when the energy market switched to a new data platform between market participants, which resulted in the data exchange between distribution system operators and energy suppliers not being possible or requiring testing, which in turn led to poor (access to) customer service for most suppliers in the final 2 months of 2021;
- prices/tariffs (+133.3%) due to the unprecedented high energy prices from the second half of 2021, which increased the number of complaints about higher advance bills, changes from fixed to variable prices, and the disappearance of 2 suppliers from the energy market in December 2021;
- market practices (+23.2%) with many complaints and questions about compliance with contractual (price) conditions when extending or renewing energy contracts;
- public service obligations (+57.1%) mainly due to ecological obligations imposed on owners of solar panels with a digital meter (mandatory installation, counter no longer goes backwards from 1 March 2021, premiums for solar panels);
Complaints about payment problems decreased by 5.2%. This is mainly due to the (temporary) extension of the right to social tariff as a result of the increased health insurance allowance from 1 February 2021. This can also be partly explained by the corona charter that most suppliers have signed https://www.febeg.be/sites/default/files/20210607-covid-19_charter_signe.... However, we fear these complaints will increase when households and companies receive their annual settlement invoices after the winter period, especially for those with variable energy contracts that follow rising market prices, or for those whose energy contract has been changed from a fixed to a variable contract in recent months. We should also not forget that, for more than 400,000 families, entitlement to the temporary social tariff under the increased health insurance allowance will end on 31 March 2022, which will see them paying higher commercial tariffs from April 2022. These customers will receive a one-off allowance of €72.00, but there is little chance this will absorb the “bill shock” between the social and commercial tariff.
Finally, the ombudsman has called for the so-called safety net regulation to enter into force. This regulation, which was repealed at the end of 2017, means energy suppliers will have their new variable energy contracts and indexation parameters checked and approved in advance by the federal energy regulator, CREG. This will help counter the “perfect storm” currently raging in the energy market concerning the transparency of variable energy contracts.
More details regarding the disputes and recommendations for each energy company will be communicated in the Energy Ombudsman’s annual report, which will be sent to the federal Minister for Energy and Parliament no later than 1 May 2022.
About the Energy Ombudsman Service
The Energy Ombudsman’s Service is an autonomous federal service with the status of a legal entity that is competent for the distribution of questions and complaints regarding the operation of the electricity and natural gas market and the handling of disputes between end customers and the electricity and natural gas companies.
Complaints must be submitted in writing to the Energy Ombudsman:
- by letter: Ombudsman for Energy, Koning AlbertII-laan 8 – bus 6, 1000 Brussels
- by fax: 02 211 10 69
- via the electronic complaint form on www.ombudsmanenergie.be