Dublin, Ireland — (METERING.COM) — December 4, 2008 – Ireland’s Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) has proposed guidelines for suppliers to use in developing a code of practice in relation to natural gas prepayment meters.

The requirement for a code of practice was one of outcomes of the Commission’s 2006 decision paper on prepayment meter policy in the natural gas market and was felt necessary to protect the interests of customers. The prepayment meter system went live on October 28, 2008 to allow national rollout of the system. Currently prepayment meters are only available to Bord Gáis Energy Supply customers in the greater Dublin and surrounding area. However, this new system will allow all suppliers to offer prepayment meters.

The meters being supplied have three principle information screens that customers can view – a credit screen which shows the amount of credit remaining on the meter, an owed screen which shows the arrears owed for unpaid emergency credit plus overdue daily standing charge if applicable, and a recommended purchase credit screen showing the estimated amount which should be purchased to cover the next seven days.

Once the credit on the meter reaches a certain level “emergency credit” may be offered. However, this emergency credit must be paid back in full before a customer can use the whole amount again.

Given the nature of prepayment meters customers will not be on the usual billing system. However customers must be issued statements at least annually, particularly where a debt is being repaid.

Prepayment meters can provide a useful tool for customers who are experiencing financial difficulty, enabling them to better budget their usage and avoid running up further debt. They also assist suppliers in managing their levels of bad debt in the retail market. Suppliers need to take account of a customer’s ability to manage the payment arrangements, in particular there needs to be guidelines in place around the setting of debt recovery tariffs and the customer’s ability to manage these.

The decision paper placed the responsibility on suppliers to assess the suitability of prepayment meters for vulnerable customers. It is important that customers are capable of using any metering technology that is provided and that they can access the meter and access a location to purchase top up for their prepayment meter. Suppliers must monitor the gas usage of elderly prepayment meter customers over the winter period and advise them when they might be falling into debt. The new prepayment meters can be automatically set that when an elderly customer living alone during the winter runs out of credit the gas supply will continue. However, legacy prepayment meters will require a site visit to be set.

Comments on the proposed guidelines, which set out a minimum level of service by suppliers to their customers in terms of information and installation requirements, must be submitted to the Commission by December 23, 2008. Final guidelines for suppliers will be issued in February 2009. It is expected that suppliers should be in a position to implement this code within two months of the decision paper being issued.