Belfast Telegraph

NIE threatens legal challenge to watchdog ruling over prices

By Clare Weir

Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) has suggested it could challenge the Competition Commission over a decision to prevent a planned hike in prices.

The news comes as MLAs voiced fears about the security of the region's electricity supply and the importance of keeping the lights on during peak periods.

The Assembly has urged large businesses to assist by feeding surplus and standby energy into the grid.

NIE claims the Competition Commission ruling will not allow it to earn enough money to provide a "safe and reliable system of electricity supply" and warned that without a rise in bills, some rural customers could be faced with an "unacceptably high risk of prolonged interruptions to their supply in periods of extremely bad weather".

The body had wanted to raise bills by about £25 a year up to 2017 in order to fund an infrastructure upgrade. But the Utility Regulator referred the matter to the Competition Commission.

In November, the commission ruled that the increase should only be around £5 a year.

NIE has now said that parts of the commission's ruling are "manifestly flawed" and stated that unless the "errors and deficiencies" are corrected by the time of a final report due in February, the ruling would be "open... to successful challenge in judicial review proceedings".

A spokesperson for NIE said "Whilst we welcome many aspects of the Competition Commission's Provisional Determination, we are concerned that an inappropriate balance is being struck between prices in the short term and the need to fund a network maintained and developed to the same standards of safety and reliability as the electricity networks in Great Britain.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment this week put forward a motion in the Assembly on its review into the security of electricity supply.

The committee's review focused on the possibility of energy demands not being met.

Committee chair, Patsy McGlone MLA, said security of electricity supply is about getting power to homes and businesses 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"It would not be acceptable if generation were not available to meet our demand and electricity supply had to be switched off for periods," he said. "To ensure security of supply we have to make sure there is sufficient electricity supply to cope with demand.

"The committee's review found that from the end of 2015 we may have a lower surplus margin, which is the amount of slack in the system. In effect, the result will be that, if any large generating plant were to have a prolonged fault after this time, there would not be enough electricity generated to cope with demand. We also found that many large businesses have standby generation capacity which could, conceivably, be fed into the grid during times of peak demand and this is currently not being utilised."

The committee is making a number of recommendations to the Utility Regulator, the electricity industry and Executive ministers, including exploring the use of existing cross-border standby connections and getting large businesses involved in assisting during times of peak demand.

"We also need an urgent decision on the proposed North-South Interconnector," said Mr McGlone.

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