Scottish & Southern set for Ulster launch

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The Independent Online

Households in Northern Ireland may finally benefit from competition in the electricity supply market, with the industry regulator set to approve the launch of Scottish & Southern, the UK's second largest energy company, in the country.

Scottish & Southern Energy has not said when it would begin signing up domestic customers, or when it hoped to start supplies. However, the company applied in August last year for a licence to supply Northern Ireland and at the same time applied to the Irish regulator to supply the rest of Ireland.

Greg Irwin, a spokesman for the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, confirmed that it supported the issuing of a licence to Scottish & Southern Energy, but said that formal approval could only be made after legal consultation ended on 19 February. A final decision on a supply licence would be taken "as soon as possible" after this, he said. It was, he added, "a commercial decision" for Scottish & Southern to decide when to begin marketing its service.

Until now, electricity supplies to domestic customers have been dominated by the former state-owned NIE Energy, now part of the Viridian Group. Although three other companies – PGV, Regent and Quinn Energy – have licences to supply electricity to domestic customers, none has begun to do so.

Liberalisation of the Northern Irish electricity market is taking place in stages, with several companies – including E.ON and Airtricity, which Scottish & Southern is buying – holding licences to supply business customers. A single electricity market was created last year, enabling suppliers in both the north and south of Ireland to source electricity from either side of the border. An inter-connector with Scotland has proved important in stabilising the wholesale market.

The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland welcomed the principle of greater competition for domestic consumers. "In the past, energy markets in Northern Ireland have been isolated, lacking the benefits of competition," said Sinead Dynan, head of energy. "Competition can lead to lower prices and higher standards of service – consumers here deserve the chance to see if competition can work for them."

Retail electricity prices in Northern Ireland are controlled by the utility regulator. The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland says that charges have been comparable to those in Britain.

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