Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources
Question 23: To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his plans to recommend to the Commission for Energy Regulation to implement a zero disconnection policy here; his views on the zero disconnection policy in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44979/10]
The Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) is the statutory independent energy regulator with responsibility for consumer protection. Recognising that the current economic climate is placing additional pressures on consumers, the CER has consulted on its customer disconnections policy and related costs. The CER has announced its decision that the cost of disconnections for electricity and gas be shared equally between the supplier and the customer in the case of non-payment of account. This is an interim measure commencing December 22nd and will remain in place for 12 months. I welcome this as a significant measure to enhance consumer protection at this difficult time.
The CER considered the option of "zero disconnections" as part of its overall review of customer disconnections policy. The CER noted the disadvantages of such an option include reducing the incentive for customers to manage their debt and restricting customers' right to switch suppliers. In Northern Ireland, disconnections remain at low levels as around one in four households have pre-paid meters installed. This eliminates the need for energy suppliers to carry out disconnections, as the customer decides on their level of energy consumption and prepays for it. The CER has made additional prepayment meters available for Irish electricity and gas consumers.
The CER is also currently running a Smart Metering pilot scheme which aims to establish how the potential benefits of smart metering can be best applied to prepayment meters for both electricity and gas. A prepayment solution is currently being tested whereby the smart meter could be defined as a debit or credit meter, making the prepayment option more easily available to customers as there would be no need to replace smart meters with specific prepayment meters. The trial, along with a cost benefit analysis, is due to be completed in early 2011. Another potential benefit of smart metering is giving customers the opportunity to access more information about their energy consumption and this is particularly important for vulnerable customers to enable them to manage their energy consumption more effectively.
I am also working closely with the Ministers for Social Protection, and Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to deliver a fully cohesive Government response to the challenges of addressing energy affordability in Ireland. I expect the Affordable Energy Strategy to be submitted to me shortly with a view to bringing it to Government in the coming weeks.
This strategy will be the framework for building upon the many measures already in place to protect vulnerable households at risk from the effects of energy poverty. These measures include social welfare supports such as the Fuel Allowance and the Household Benefits package, advice on energy efficiency. The Warmer Homes Scheme (WHS), administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland provides significant energy efficiency improvements in low-income homes. Improving the thermal efficiency of houses is a critical means of addressing energy affordability.