Australia’s biggest electricity companies are vowing to put customers and affordability back at the centre of their thinking with a new energy charter.

The sector has come under intense scrutiny in recent years amid soaring power prices, and is now facing the federal government’s so-called ‘big stick’ legislation that could force the break-up of businesses.

With the new charter, the 17 signatories hope to recognise the community expectations for them to do more on energy affordability and to deliver better customer service.

Businesses signed up include electricity retail giants AGL, EnergyAustralia and Origin Energy, as well as transmission providers Ausgrid and TransGrid.

A new accountability panel has been set up, including national customer advocate Energy Consumers Australia, and it will report each year on how the sector is going.

It will be led by current Climate Change Authority chair Wendy Craik.

The inaugural head of the Council for the Energy Charter, Essential Energy chief executive John Cleland, says it will help to drive greater accountability and new thinking across the industry.

“It will allow our customers to more clearly see what we are doing for them, and in turn hear from them about what we could do better,” he said in a statement launching the charter on Thursday.

“We will demonstrate how we are improving energy affordability; how we are delivering reliable, sustainable and safe energy; and how we are putting the customer at the centre of our business.”

But the Electrical Trades Union of Australia says the charter is a “fig leaf”, as energy giants continue to put profits ahead of anything else, including investing in more renewable energy.

“The privatised energy market is failing the Australian people as prices continue to rise and reliability of coal-fired generators decreases,” ETU national secretary Allen Hicks said in a statement.

“But all these companies are offering is a fig leaf to ensure bad practices and high prices continue.”

Mr Hicks called on Energy Minister Angus Taylor to rule out putting taxpayer money towards new coal power projects.

Instead, the minister should implement policies to help workers with the transition to renewables, Mr Hicks added.

Meanwhile, the Australian Energy Market Commission is working to improve protections for customers in embedded power networks.

Such customers include those in apartment buildings, shopping centres, retirement villages and caravan parks, who are not directly connected to the National Energy Market.

AEMC is seeking stakeholder feedback until March 14 on new laws and regulations for those customers in private networks.