02/11/2010

Competitor Expands NI Gas Market

Domestic gas customers in greater Belfast have today moved closer to having a choice of natural gas supplier for the first time.

Many customers in the greater Belfast and Larne areas will, from Tuesday, be able to choose from two suppliers.

The supplier, firmus energy, which already pipes natural gas to homes and businesses in other towns and cities across Northern Ireland, will now start to switch its first domestic gas customers inside the greater Belfast area.

The move signals firmus energy's intent to provide lower gas prices and improved customer service to all domestic gas customers in greater Belfast in the near future. The option of changing supplier will be limited initially to allow for the testing of the new market switching system.

Mark Prentice, Managing Director for firmus energy (pictured here) explained: "Our extensive research with gas customers in greater Belfast has indicated that households want two key things: lower prices and great customer service.

"Whatever price Phoenix charges over the next two years, firmus energy prices will always be cheaper - we guarantee it.

"This means that customers who switch to us could save up to 11.5% on their gas bills in the first 12 months alone."

The NI Consumer Council said that with firmus energy now in competition with Phoenix Natural Gas, customers would benefit from lower prices.

Regulator Gas Director Brian McHugh told the BBC: "Today's announcement is the first stage in a process to open up the domestic gas market in the Greater Belfast area to competition.

"During the initial testing period, the number of customers able to switch will be limited, however this will increase as the systems are tested.

"As part of the phased entry, we have allowed firmus energy to begin by supplying to credit customers only.
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"We will continue to work with the energy industry to ensure that systems are in place to allow pay-as-you-go customers to start to switch in early 2011, ensuring that all customers can benefit from competition by September 2011."

Mark Prentice from firmus energy said that credit customers wishing to switch their gas supply to firmus energy will benefit from cheaper prices for at least two years - 7.5% off Phoenix prices for the first 12 months and 5% discount for the second 12 months.

He said the offer is based on sign-up to online account management and payment by direct debit.

Coupled with an additional direct debit discount of up to £20.40 per year, the discount means that customers, who are not currently paying by direct debit, could save up to 11.5% on their current gas bills.

"Switching is easy. It only takes five minutes to switch online and it’s the same pipes and the same meter - just cheaper natural gas. There's no disruption to the customer's gas supply and they don't even have to ring their old supplier," he continued.

Today's announcement follows extensive work between firmus energy, stakeholders and the Utility Regulator over the last nine months, culminating in firmus' development of the legal arrangements and switching processes to allow domestic competition to start.

Sinn Fein MLA Jennifer McCann welcomed the move and said: "I welcome the potential for more competition within the domestic gas industy and hope that this will lead to lower gas prices for customers throughout Belfast.

"While I welcome this move by Firmus I would however ask that the switching mechanism which enables customers to have a choice of gas suppliers be made available to all customers immediately including those on pre paid meters.

"Currently only 300 people a week will be able to transfer and the utility regulator must address this.

"I would also ask Firmus to ensure that all customers including those who do not have access to on line payment or Direct Debit be given access to the same discount as other customers are."

(BMcC/GK)

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