Paul Austin: THE state government has temporarily pulled the plug on Victoria’s $2 billion smart energy meter program.
Energy Minister Peter Batchelor last night announced an indefinite moratorium on the rollout of the new technology to every home across the state – because of concerns pensioners and the poor would be hardest hit by higher electricity prices.
Mr Batchelor made the announcement, an election-year embarrassment for the government, after meeting representatives of the poor, including St Vincent de Paul and the Victorian Council of Social Service.
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He made it clear the government intended to push ahead with the scheme, but gave no indication as to how long the moratorium might last.
The plan to install smart meters in all 2.5 million Victorian homes and small businesses over the next four years, and introduce a new time-of-use pricing regime, has been beset by controversy.
The government argues the new technology, which can read a household’s energy use every 30 minutes, will enable people to monitor their use in peak periods and turn on high-energy appliances such as dishwashers during off-peak times.
But charity groups estimate the meters, dubbed ”dumb meters” by the state opposition and already installed in more than 10,000 homes in Melbourne, could increase a household’s annual electricity bill by more than $250 a year.
Victorian Auditor-General Des Pearson savaged the scheme in a report to Parliament late last year, saying installation costs had blown out from an original estimate of $800 million to more than $2 billion. ”There has been insufficient analysis to fully understand potential perverse outcomes, risks and unintended consequences for consumers,” he said.
VCOSS chief executive Cath Smith last night welcomed the moratorium, saying Mr Batchelor had recognised that people who spend a lot of time at home during the day or who could not shift their energy use to off-peak times could suffer.
Ms Smith said the elderly, long-term unemployed and people with disabilities might be hit hardest by the new pricing plan. ”It’s imperative the impacts of time-of-use pricing are investigated and measures are put in place to ensure low-income and disadvantaged households are not worse off,” she said.
Mr Batchelor said last night: ”We are committed to ensuring the transition to a new pricing structure is managed carefully and sensibly.” He promised to regularly review the effect of time-of-use tariffs on families.
But he defended smart meters, saying they would help Victorians tackle climate change.