The energy market has changed in Northern Ireland over the last decade and is set to change even further in coming years. Below is a selection of some of the areas where change is expected, along with how Choice intends to continue to manage this area to deliver savings for our customers.
Most commentators and Government predictions anticipate that energy prices will generally continue to increase. Energy prices are impacted upon by a large number of factors, which include increases in wholesale energy costs, political factors, currency changes and local investment in infrastructure.
Like most commercial and domestic consumers we have limited control over market prices but we can take action to reduce the impact of future price increases. Each year we carry out energy procurement exercises, aiming to achieve the lowest possible prices, with our energy management team also responsible for validating our energy bills from our suppliers to ensure that these are accurate.
Electricity and Natural Gas Suppliers
Over the last decade a number of new electricity and natural gas suppliers have entered the domestic and commercial markets in Northern Ireland. A number of potential suppliers have licenses but don’t yet operate and so it is anticipated that in future years this may change with more suppliers becoming active and potentially more licenses being issued.
This should mean that competition will increase which would facilitate more choice between suppliers, with possible opportunities for different tariff options. The energy management team in Choice continue to run procurement exercises each year and so we are able to take advantage of increased competition to deliver savings for our customers.
Natural gas markets are also extending in Northern Ireland at present to include parts of Co. Down, Co. Tyrone and Co. Fermanagh. This means that more consumers will be able to switch to natural gas from other heating systems such as heating oil, storage heaters or solid fuel.
Choice have now installed natural gas in two of our housing schemes in Strabane as part of the ‘Gas to the West’ project, and we are one of the first social housing providers to have taken this step. Each year we review our planned maintenance works and consider factors such as the future development of the natural gas network.
Renewable and Energy Saving Technologies
Choice firmly believe in taking the ‘fabric first’ approach and so our priority has been to invest in measures such as insulation upgrades and improvements in building fabric such as windows and doors. We also invest significantly each year in new heating systems.
One of the most effective technologies in recent years has been LED lighting and where possible we now specify this for the common parts of our new developments and as part of communal lighting upgrades in our existing housing schemes. We would advise all of our customers to consider low energy lighting, and particularly LEDs, as these not only reduce energy costs, but normally bulbs also last much longer.
In the past we have invested in renewable technologies, with the most significant being Solar PV systems, which generate electricity. We currently have around 375 of these systems in Northern Ireland, and each year these systems generate over 500,000kWh of renewable electricity, reducing emissions by over 250 tonnes of CO2. Unfortunately the current political and economic climate in Northern Ireland means that there are no significant financial incentives available for these types of systems, which means that these systems are no longer as financially viable.
It’s expected that there may be more opportunities for innovation in the future with new technologies coming forward each year.
SMART metering is being rolled out in other parts of the UK but hasn’t yet been implemented at a large scale in Northern Ireland, with mixed reports on how successful this approach has been.
One way to manage heating costs is to install more advanced heating controls and this is something Choice have been doing in relation to heating upgrades at a number of our communal heating schemes. At a domestic level SMART heating controllers with remote functionality, are increasingly becoming more common. Choice have also recently installed heating additives to a number of our communal heating schemes and will monitor any savings which this delivers for our customers.
We are part of an all-island electricity grid and it’s anticipated that there will be significant opportunity for innovation in this area in the future. This could include the installation of equipment to influence when electricity is required (known as ‘Demand Side Response’ or ‘DSR’). An example of this is batteries which could be installed in a housing scheme or a home, and could also link to a Solar PV system. Choice are involved in a number of projects where this type of technology is proposed and we are considering trials in 2019.
A significant part of our emissions come from transport and this is also an area where we have already seen changes and will see more in the future. In recent years we’ve seen the introduction of ‘Belfast Bikes’ and in recent months the new ‘Glider’ service has been operating in Belfast, which offers a modern ‘eco-hybrid’ fleet. At a domestic level we expect to see electric vehicles become much more common, with continual improvements to this technology.