Energy forum aims to clear up 'confusing' future for prices in Northern Ireland

NI Chamber's Ann McGregor, left, and Natasha Sayee, Soni launch the new energy forum
NI Chamber's Ann McGregor, left, and Natasha Sayee, Soni launch the new energy forum

THE future for energy prices in Northern Ireland is confusing and unclear according to an expert of the subject.

Dr Patrick Keatley, a research fellow in energy storage integration at Ulster University was speaking as a new business energy forum was established.

The initiative has been launched by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and the Systems Operator of Northern Ireland (Soni), which operates the electricity grid in the north.

It will meet four times a year and focus on issues such as the proposed north-south interconnector, uncertainties around Brexit and and new market arrangements which will emerge with i-SEM in 2017.

Dr Keatley said there was an “unclear picture” emerging for future energy prices in the north.

“While electricity costs for domestic consumers are comparatively low, our largest energy users face prices which are among the highest in Europe," he said.

"The interaction of factors that influence the cost of energy in a small, isolated power system like ours are complex and confusing.

"Add to this the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the new market arrangements which will emerge with I-SEM in 2017, and the picture for future energy prices is even more unclear.”

Chamber chief executive Ann McGregor said energy costs were considered by her members "as one of the biggest barriers to business growth".

"This is a real challenge to our competitiveness and needs both government and the private sector to work together to address," she said.

“The energy forum therefore seeks to share best practice on energy efficiency and to inform businesses of significant changes ahead, including securing critical planning permission for the north-south interconnector and I-SEM (integrated single electricity market), which will change the way electricity is traded and generating capacity managed.”

Soni's head of public affairs Natasha Sayee said communication was key as plans progressed for a new interconnector which she called "undoubtedly the single most important infrastructure project on the island today".

“Working with the business community, understanding their needs and helping them to become aware of the key role we play is essential to us," she added.

The body, and the Utility Regulator for the north appeared before the Northern Ireland affairs committee at Westminster to press on the need to progress plans for a new north-south interconnector.

Speaking ahead of his appearance, Soni general manager Robin McCormick said the north was "on the verge of an electricity supply crisis" if the interconnector was not given the green light.

Proposals for the £200m project have been delayed as objectors claimed it will be a blot on the landscape with some saying it could pose a risk to health.

Mr McCormick told MPs the delay was costing Northern Ireland consumers £14 million a year.

Northern Ireland policy chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Wilfred Mitchell said the costs were "curbing the growth of the wider Northern Ireland economy".

“FSB’s manifesto for the 2016 NI Assembly election called upon the Northern Ireland executive to prioritise the construction of the north-south interconnector and we would reiterate the need for long-term vision and action that will benefit all electricity customers, both domestic and business alike."