Continued investment in the natural gas network and ensuring appropriate grants are available is essential if we are going to address fuel poverty, says Michael Scott, Managing Director of firmus energy.
Since the company connected its first customer in December 2005, firmus energy has been active in making natural gas available to thousands more homes and businesses across Northern Ireland.
The progressive Antrim-based company has grown steadily and now has around 76,000 residential and commercial customers across the province; 26,000 of which are in towns and cities new to natural gas. This has been achieved through a robust £100 million investment programme by firmus energy which has resulted in over 900km of new gas pipelines being laid to date, enabling properties in more than 20 towns, cities and villages to benefit from natural gas.
Each year, the company connects more than 4,000 new commercial and domestic customers as the firmus network continues to grow, bringing natural gas to many towns for the first time. firmus energy intends to continue growing at this rate in the future with a sustained and strategic investment plan. In addition, firmus energy was awarded a licence in 2010 to supply natural gas in greater Belfast and now has 50,000 customers in this area.
firmus energy was bought by iCON Infrastructure in July 2014, an independent investment group focusing on acquiring and operating infrastructure assets in Europe and North America. iCON has a wealth of experience in this area owning and managing businesses including energy, railways, oil storage and transportation and ports.
Michael Scott, Managing Director of firmus energy, explains: “Right from the outset, iCON made a commitment to provide job stability for our employees and suppliers through a continued focus on investing in the growth of both the natural gas network in Northern Ireland and the firmus energy business in general.
“As we celebrate our 10th anniversary in 2015, we remain committed to investing in the Northern Ireland economy by expanding the natural gas network into new areas, creating employment opportunities for hundreds of local contractors, installers and support agencies.
“As more and more homes and businesses realise the convenience, efficiency and environmental benefits offered by gas, demand has grown and we are regularly applying to the Utility Regular to extend our gas network into more and more new areas. Most recently, we received approval to bring natural gas to Richhill in a £1.1 million investment programme, bringing the total invested in the economy over the last 10 years to around £100 million.”
Michael adds: “We aim to be the first choice natural gas supplier in Northern Ireland having spent the last number of years building an extensive network across the province. These were towns and cities which had never had access to natural gas and householders and businesses of all sizes were quick to recognise the advantages in terms of cost savings, fuel efficiency and convenience.
“There were a lot of people who lobbied hard to extend the natural gas network to their area and it is great to see so many customers grasping the opportunities it presents. The larger industrial businesses in these areas were the first to convert with smaller commercial properties and domestic customers quick to follow suit.
“And there are environmental benefits too. Excluding power generation stations, firmus energy now supplies around 50 per cent of the natural gas consumed in Northern Ireland and has displaced upwards of 450,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions as a result; the equivalent of over 90,000 fewer passenger cars on the road.”
With continued company growth, the local economy should carry on benefiting from reduced CO2 emissions and job creation, network development and increased consumer choice, as well as on-the-ground community support through firmus energy’s corporate social responsibility initiatives.
One of the most important benefits of natural gas is the impact that its availability can have on fuel poverty which currently sits at 42 per cent in Northern Ireland and, according to Age NI, has contributed to 2,390 extra winter deaths locally over the last four years. It is recognised by many, including the Consumer Council, that the prevalence of fuel poverty here is mainly due to our over-dependence on oil which is used by three quarters of households in Northern Ireland.
Natural gas currently can only be accessed by 26 per cent of the population here and this lack of fuel choice means Northern Ireland has the highest incidence of fuel poverty in the UK and one of the highest in the EU.
Other parts of the UK and Ireland have benefited from the efficiency and convenience of natural gas for over 40 years while natural gas was only introduced into greater Belfast in 1996 and then in the new gas areas in 2005.
Michael explains: “Natural gas offers environmental benefits, improved efficiencies and convenience so it is no surprise that government has made the expansion of natural gas networks in Northern Ireland a key priority.
“However, one challenge that many households face is the initial outlay of converting their heating system, which is typically between £2,000 and £3,000, to cover the cost of installing or replacing their boiler, new heating controls and associated works.
“Our research has shown that affording the cost of the boiler and new heating system is the number one reason that prevents people from connecting to gas, making the availability of grant support from government and other agencies extremely important. Three quarters of the homes we convert, do so under a grant aided incentive.
“Seventy-five per cent of those who enquire about connecting to natural gas but don’t go through with the upgrade fail to do so because they do not qualify for any grant support.”
Since 2010, firmus energy has managed £5.5 million worth of grant schemes in partnership with the Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme (NISEP) with a further £1 million plus of ‘Home Comfort’ grants recently announced for 2015. Cash-back grants of up to £1800 for a new gas installation are available in addition to insulation measures of up to £800 along with a limited number of ‘free heat’ grants which will cover the full cost of installation.
“Fuel poverty must be addressed and the availability of natural gas is an integral part of a joined up approach,” adds Michael. “We are always keen to work in partnership with agencies that are helping to alleviate need and reduce the staggering fuel poverty figure in Northern Ireland.
“Over the last 10 years we have brought fuel choice to over 20 towns, cities and villages with thousands of homes and businesses making the switch every year. However, in tandem with this, funding must be set aside to ensure that lower income and vulnerable households are not disadvantaged and grants continue to be available to allow as many people as possible to benefit from natural gas.”
To find out if you can connect to natural gas, call a firmus energy customer advisor on 0800 032 4567
or visit www.firmusenergy.co.uk