The Stormont administration is heading for failure in a multi-million pound drive against fuel poverty, a new report has warned.
According to estimates, over 1,000 older people here die every year due to the cold with related health problems costing around £40m annually.
But, the Government's main policy for tackling fuel poverty, a grants scheme called Warm Homes, has been found wanting in a review by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.
It reveals that the problem is actually getting worse, in the wake of swingeing energy price rises, despite taxpayer expenditure of almost £100m.
Therefore, a Government strategy of wiping out fuel poverty in vulnerable households across the province by 2010 now looks doomed.
Warm Homes Scheme has made an impact, but it "does not make the contribution it could", the Audit Office found.
The Warm Homes Scheme, sponsored by the Department for Social Development, was established in 2001. By March this year, £98m had been spent by Government, benefiting 60,000 homes.
Householders under 60 in receipt of certain benefits who have children or a disability can receive up to £850 for insulation measures.
Qualifying householders over 60 are covered by Warm Homes Plus which offers up to £4,300 for the installation of new home heating systems and insulation.
The Audit Office report said early progress since 2001 on reducing fuel poverty has not been maintained and a 2006 survey showed that the number of households in fuel poverty up to 225,500, well over the target of 110,000.
The 225,500 figure comprised 34% of all homes in the province, compared to 2001 when 27% —167,000 homes — fell into the category, and the total is certain to have risen further over the last two years as a result of fuel increases.
"The goal of eliminating fuel poverty amongst vulnerable households by 2010 was always a challenging one, but the current rate of progress suggests that it is now unrealistic," the report said.
"The rise in energy costs since 2004 is accepted widely as the key factor."
The study added that it was arguable that the 2010 objective was "never likely to be achieved" as it required almost 100,000 homes to receive a Warm Homes grant between 2004 and 2010, an average of over 16,500 per year.
"Yet the operational targets for Warm Homes were to treat 8,250 households in 2004/05 and 2005/06 and 10,000 thereafter," it continued, warning that while actual performance has bettered this, the scheme has not treated 12,000 households in any year and further warned that the goal of wiping out fuel poverty cannot be achieved through Warm Homes grants alone.
The report also questioned the current eligibility criteria as almost half of all Warm Homes grants go to households that are "not necessarily in fuel poverty".
The Department for Social Development is currently reviewing the Warm Homes Schemes and a Fuel Poverty Task Force has been set up.