The case for developing natural gas has never been stronger, firmus energy Managing Director Michael Scott writes. Customers can expect the same brand and high quality of service under the company’s new owner, iCON infrastructure.
Natural gas is still relatively ‘new’ to Northern Ireland. It has been here less than 20 years, whereas in Great Britain natural gas has been available to users for around 50 years. When it was first introduced into the province in 1996, it was initially only available in the greater Belfast area.
However, in 2005, firmus energy was awarded licences to build natural gas pipelines and to supply gas to customers in towns and cities outside greater Belfast. Industrial customers in provincial areas were the first to convert with smaller commercial properties and domestic customers quick to follow suit. Today, the company has more than 70,000 customers across Northern Ireland of which over 20,000 are in these ‘new’ natural gas towns and cities, enjoying the practical, cost-saving and environmental benefits of natural gas for the first time.
During the last nine years, firmus energy has developed more than 900km of pipeline and invested more than £85 million in the local economy.
The company supplies upwards of 40 per cent of the natural gas consumed in Northern Ireland and as a result has displaced more than 450,000 tonnes of CO2. Year on year, firmus energy exceeds its connection targets and the demand for natural gas continues to rise as the fuel becomes available in new areas for the first time.
Due to the increasing popularity of the fuel, firmus energy has already been granted eight extensions for areas outside the original licensed locations, including most recently Bushmills. Communities are quick to realise the benefits which natural gas can bring to an area and firmus energy works pro-actively in partnership with local stakeholders in an effort to deliver its lower cost fuel to as many provincial areas as possible.
How we work
Initially when entering each town, the major industrial customers, Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties and large new build developments are connected first. This forms the ‘spine’ of our network and it allows firmus energy to bring gas to others along the route of the network. This blueprint has allowed firmus energy to more than double the annual number of connections in recent years compared to what was originally anticipated back in 2005.
A major factor in stimulating interest was the implementation of an extensive education campaign to explain the benefits of natural gas. Tailored information is also produced for more vulnerable customers detailing the various ways the ‘firmuscare’ scheme can help those with a variety of different needs.
There is clear evidence that firmus energy’s knowledge and tried and tested procedures provide a good experience. Roadworks are an inevitable consequence of building a gas network and the company has a dedicated engineer to focus on each area under development. Their role is to ensure that there is a presence on the ground and co-ordinate with the construction contractor to ensure that people living in or travelling to an area are inconvenienced as little as possible. To date, firmus energy has not incurred any road authority fines, which is unique for a utility in Northern Ireland.
As the energy market in Northern Ireland is evolving, firmus energy continues to connect around 4,000 new commercial and domestic customers each year in its network areas. The communities within the organisation’s network now include Ahoghill, Antrim, Armagh, Ballyclare, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Banbridge, Belfast, Bessbrook, Broughshane, Bushmills, Coleraine, Craigavon, Cullybackey, Derry~Londonderry, Limavady, Lurgan, Maghaberry, Magheralin, Moira, Newbuildings, Newry, Portadown, Portstewart, Tandragee and Warrenpoint.
As customer numbers continue to increase, local economies across Northern Ireland are reaping the benefits from the positive impact of consumers making the switch from more traditional fuels. With a report from the Consumer Council showing that savings of more than £1,000 per year can be made from converting from oil to natural gas for heating a typical home, the argument for developing the network has never been stronger.¹
firmus energy is committed to investing £10 million per annum in the Northern Ireland economy, bringing natural gas to new parts of the province while creating jobs for around 500 local contractors, installers and agencies. The company continues to offer one of the cheapest gas prices in Western Europe² and this cost-efficient, versatile and environmentally-friendly, practical fuel is becoming increasingly popular with domestic and industrial customers.
However, natural gas as a fuel source is still under-utilised in Northern Ireland with only 15 per cent of households using this form of energy compared to 68 per cent using home heating oil.³ Statistics also show that England is much more advanced with more than 90 per cent of energy users opting for natural gas as their main heating fuel. The awareness of natural gas still remains a challenge for firmus energy across the areas in which it operates. However, it remains committed to the positive promotion of this greener, more efficient and versatile fuel.
As the company pro-actively seeks to grow its network throughout the province and increase its customer base, there remains a strong focus on providing the best customer service. It maintains customer satisfaction levels of 95 per cent, and continues to attract hundreds of new customers every month, providing direct employment for more than 90 employees working from its headquarters in Antrim.
firmus energy was recently acquired by iCON Infrastructure which has interests in other core infrastructure businesses, including energy, railways, oil and ports. This is positive news for customers and employees as iCON has committed to retain the firmus energy brand and offer job stability with a commitment to invest in growing both the natural gas network and the firmus energy business. In addition, employees will also have the opportunity to share experience and best practice with other iCON-owned companies around the world.
With continued growth, the local economy should secure many benefits, from reduced CO2 emissions to job creation, network development and increased consumer choice as well as on-the-ground community support through local CSR initiatives.
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