During the winter, your energy supplier can suspend your gas or electricity contract in some situations. This means the winter break does not affect all consumers. What about you? What does the law say? Are there any special circumstances due to the coronavirus?
Being without electricity or natural gas is a very difficult situation, especially when temperatures drop. However, more and more households are threatened by this possibility as they have problems paying their energy bills.
As we approach the end of 2020, things are even more complicated because of the COVID-19 health crisis. To overcome this situation, one option is to consume less gas or electricity, but that is not a viable solution if you want to maintain a decent quality of life.
What does the law say in Belgium? Are suppliers allowed to cut off their customers’ electricity or gas supplies in the winter? Energyprice reviews the rights and obligations on both sides.
Broadly speaking, a winter truce is a period during which it is illegal to evict a tenant who cannot pay their rent. Although this is established in French law, the same cannot be said for Belgian law. In our country, evictions are allowed in both public and private sectors at any time of the year. The only obligation is the requirement for a court judgement and for the tenant to be given a month’s notice to leave the property.
However, there is an exception if you live in social housing in Wallonia or Brussels. In this case, you are protected against evictions during the winter.
Did you know? In the capital, a winter moratorium introduced in 2000 makes evictions illegal between 1 December and 28 February. In Wallonia, a similar ruling from 2013 prohibits this kind of measure between 1 November and 15 March. However, the household concerned has to accept guidance from the CPAS social welfare service.
For people not in social housing, other remedies exist. A justice of the peace can decide to postpone the eviction based on the family situation, the weather conditions or the alternative housing possibilities. But the winter truce does not only apply to rental accommodation, it also affects the supply of electricity and natural gas. What happens if you default on your payments?
In Brussels, residents cannot, in principle, have their electricity or gas shut off between 1 October and 31 March. However, a justice of the peace can still decide to end your contract with your energy supplier. If this happens, you will be supplied with electricity and/or gas by Sibelga, the Brussels system operator, with or without a power limiter (the Brussels region’s equivalent of a budget meter). Of course, you will still be responsible for paying the bills for this supply.
You will need to have found a new supplier by the time the winter period is over. Otherwise, Sibelga will shut down your energy meters and you will have to pay a considerable sum (nearly €100 per meter) to reopen them.
If you are unsure how to choose an energy supplier, our advisers will be happy to help you by phone on 0800 37 456 or by email. They will suggest suppliers that meet your needs and expectations. They can, for example, tell you which is the cheapest electricity and gas supplier in Brussels.
If the weather is bad, the Brussels government can extend the winter truce. This was the case in spring 2020. In March of this year, given the complicated situation caused by the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the Brussels energy regulator Brugel announced that it was, exceptionally, extending the winter period up to and including 30 April 2020 for Brussels consumers.
In addition, in June 2020, Brugel also established an extended protected customer status for consumers impacted by the health emergency affecting the country.
The Brugel publication states as follows:
“The measure allows a protected customer to be supplied for a year and a half, at the social rate, by the system operator Sibelga. The end of the period for granting the status is fixed at 31/12/2020.”
In view of the situation, this extended status is due to be extended until 30 June 2021.
If you live in Wallonia and you are declared in default of payment, your distribution system operator (DSO) will come and install a budget meter in your home. Note that if you refuse to have a budget meter installed, your energy supplier can ask your DSO to cut off your electricity or gas supply at any time of year, whether you are a protected customer or not. Your supply contract will then end automatically. You will have to sign a new contract with a different supplier to keep your energy meter open. You will also be responsible for the reconnection costs.
Depending on your personal circumstances, you may benefit from a degree of protection regarding your energy supply during the winter period.
According to a Wallonia government order, if your contract is terminated or expires between 1 November and 15 March, you will be temporarily supplied with energy by your DSO throughout this period. They will supply energy at the maximum prices set and approved by the CREG, the federal energy market regulator. Note that these prices are generally higher than average standard prices.
Your DSO is also required to inform you 15 days before the end of the period when shut-offs are prohibited that you need to sign an electricity and/or gas supply contract within 60 business days of the deadline. If you fail to do this, your energy supply will be suspended.
As a protected customer, you will have a budget meter. If you fail to pay and are unable to top up your card, you are entitled to a minimum electricity supply (power limited to 1,300 watts) from your energy supplier. This applies all year round for six months from the date on which the power limiter is implemented, and cannot be withdrawn during the winter.
Did you know? Under certain conditions, the CPAS social welfare service can increase the minimum supply to 2,600 watts. They are then liable for half of the bill of the customer concerned.
If you struggle to pay your gas bills as well during the winter, you can ask your DSO for supply cards rather than a minimum supply. This means you can continue to use gas.
If you have been using this minimum supply for six months but have not paid the related bills, your supplier will inform your DSO of the situation and you will be declared a persistent non-payer. A special procedure then follows so that you continue to be supplied with energy by your DSO. But you will remain limited to the guaranteed minimum supply until you pay your bills.
Thereafter, if you make no effort to resolve your situation, your DSO will send you a formal notice to pay. If you fail to respond, the case is referred to the local cut-off notice committee. Your DSO can then request a power shutdown on the basis of evident bad faith.
If you move house, you must transfer your energy contract or take out a new one for your new address. If you fail to do so, this is referred to as a problematic move. Without a contract, you risk being cut off, even in winter and even if you are a protected customer.
In 2020, the health emergency has forced the Walloon government to create a new status, that of the short-term protected customer. Individuals that fall within this category will receive an energy supply at the social rate for a period of one year. In addition, their energy contracts will be suspended during this time. This means that the households affected will be supplied by the system operator rather than the supplier. This measure should help to reduce their bills greatly during the emergency. In practice, this status can be granted until 31 March 2021.
What happens if you’re still unable to pay your bills, even at the social rate? If that is the case with you, it is likely that you also have a budget meter. You can then notify your CPAS social welfare service of the situation and, where appropriate, they will intervene by activating the “power limiter” function on your meter, as described above.
In Flanders, residential customers can only have their electricity or gas supply withdrawn between 1 December and 1 March if no opinion is required from the LAC, the local notice committee established in each municipality. This means that the DSO can only stop the supply in the following cases:
Furthermore, if an LAC opinion is required, the energy supply cannot be withdrawn between 1 December and 1 March. But be aware that if a cut-off has been decided before the beginning of the winter period, it will not necessarily be cancelled after 1 December.
Finally, note that the regional minister can adjust the start and end dates of the winter truce depending on the weather.
Have you had your electricity cut off for non-payment in winter? Do you dispute your supplier’s reasons for terminating your contract and believe the response is excessive? Contact the company so that you can try to find an amicable solution.
If this doesn’t produce a satisfactory result, you can apply to the federal energy mediator free of charge. The mediator will analyse your complaint and, if it considers it valid, it will begin negotiations between you and the company to find a satisfactory solution.
If you would like to know more about what happens next, please to call our team on 0800 37 456 from Monday to Friday, from 9.00am to 12.30 pm and from 1.30pm to 5.30 pm.Respond!