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.


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


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