Energy Law Case Note: Miller v Lifestyle SA Pty Ltd [2021] SACAT 35 (7 April 2021)

Middleton, South Australia

This case note concerns a decision of the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (the Tribunal).

The applicant in the matter, Mr Miller, entered into a residency agreement in March 2010 whereunder he resided in a retirement village in South Australia. Electricity supply within the village was initially managed by Lifestyle Utilities (LU), a related entity of the respondent.

The Tribunal decision notes that LU decided that it did not have the capacity to operate the embedded network at the village, as it was under the impression that it needed to demonstrate to the AER ‘experience as an electricity retailer, establishing business plans, putting into place customer service protocols, arranging for financial audits to be performed of the business and quarterly reports to be provided to the regulator.’ LU appears to have formed the view that it required a retail authorisation and that it was unable to operate under an exemption as energy selling was its main business activity.

LU thereafter appointed a private embedded network operator (ENO) at the Village pursuant to a contract commencing on 1 July 2015. The term of the contract was 5 years with an automatic renewal period of 5 years provided that there were no more than 5 complaints to the AER or state ombudsman scheme within the initial period. As there were no more than 5 such complaints, the renewal occurred and the contract will continue until July 2025. Pursuant to the contract with the ENO, LU agreed to either assign any existing agreements between LU and residents or to have new agreements signed between the ENO and residents.

The solar and usage tariffs

At the time of installing a solar PV system, Mr. Miller was paid for excess generation at between 34-36c per kwh. The ENO continued to pay that amount to Mr. Miller. The contract between Mr Miller and LU further provided for a 10 percent discount on energy tariffs (from the [sic] ‘SA Regulator approved energy tariffs’). The terms of supply from the ENO did not provide for the same discount and rather provided for:

  • a 10% pay on time discount for residents without solar power;
  • a 4% pay on time discount for residents who are ‘new solar users;’ or
  • no discount for ‘residents on the old solar tariff.’

Mr. Miller’s complaint was lodged against the village operator and was essentially that he was being financially disadvantaged and further had no ‘freedom of choice of provider’ having been informed that no other provider will take on the role of retailer unless they were also the operator of the embedded network.

The decision noted that in substance part of Mr Miller’s dispute arose by virtue of the contract between him and the ENO and that: ‘Under the RVA, the Tribunal only has power to deal with disputes between an Administering Authority and a resident. The Tribunal does not have the power to deal with disputes arising from contracts between a resident and any other entity – even if that entity is a related entity to the Administering Authority – and even if the dispute is about the provision of a service within the retirement village.’

The contract between the ENO and resident

The Tribunal then went on to review the ‘effectiveness of the contractual arrangement’ with the ENO finding that there was an effective contract between the ENO and LU. The Tribunal then went on to examine whether there was a contract between the ENO and Mr. Miller finding that:

  • The ENO wrote to Mr Miller on 10 August 2015 setting out the terms and conditions that would apply to his electricity supply and noting that if Mr Miller did not challenge those terms, then the ENO was entitled to assume that he consented to those terms.
  • In the terms and conditions within the letter, cl 3 allowed either party to terminate the arrangement on 20 days’ written notice.

The Tribunal found that ‘If Mr Miller did not want to continue with that arrangement, then he could have terminated it by providing 20 days’ notice.’  ENOs should not accept this finding as reflective of the current state of the law and should consult with a lawyer when determining how to contract with embedded network occupants.

The findings

The Tribunal then went on to consider whether the appointment of the ENO was:

  • in breach of the operator’s obligations under their residence agreement with Mr Miller;
  • in breach of the relevant provisions under the Retirement Villages Act 2016; or
  • harsh or unconscionable conduct within the meaning of the Retirement Villages Act 2016.

The Tribunal found that the respondent did not adequately consult on the proposed appointment of the ENO and was in breach of the regulations under the RVA 1987 (which is not technically a breach of the Act), and also in breach of an obligation under Mr Miller’s residence agreement because they have failed to comply with a term of the Code of Conduct. The Tribunal did not find that the appointment process was harsh or unconscionable conduct within the meaning of the Retirement Villages Act 2016.

The ultimate order of the Tribunal was as follows ‘The respondent (Lifestyle) will undertake appropriate consultation with residents prior to making any decision as to the appointment of an operator of the embedded power network in the Village, and such consultation will occur prior to the expiry of the current contract for that service.

Lessons for ENOs

Embedded Network Operators can take two lessons away from this decision. These are that:

  1. ENOs should have individual agreements with residents and comply with any obligations relating to contracting within the applicable exemption category or otherwise under applicable laws; and
  2. ENOs must consider not only requirements under energy laws when taking over a goldfield site but also those applicable to the particular type of customer, site, or development.
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Connor James

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