The Utility Regulator for Northern Ireland has defended its role after west Belfast MLA Gerry Carroll questioned the effectiveness of the department.
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll made the comments as Power NI announced a 27.5% price increase for over 461,000 Northern Ireland homes.
The increase from Power NI, Northern Ireland’s leading energy company, will see the bill of typical Power NI customer with a credit meter rise by around £204 per year, while customers with a prepayment meter will see a yearly increase of about £199.
The tariff change has been approved by the Utility Regulator and applies to domestic customers only.
Mr Carroll said: “This is extortionate. If the utility regulator cannot prevent such a drastic increase from taking place, then what purpose is it actually serving?”
"We are seeing an unprecedented rise in the cost of energy prices here which is putting people under serious and severe pressure.
“It’s clear that the Stormont Executive parties have refused to take the action required to deal with this unprecedented crisis. This includes elevating the demand for a windfall tax on the energy companies who are raking it in, ensuring public ownership of all utilities and implementing price and profit caps so people aren’t struggling to heat their homes.
"Unless urgent and drastic action is taken its unbearable to think what people will be faced with this winter.”
He added: “At a time when energy and fossil fuel companies are making billions in profits- its obscene that once again prices can be jacked up with no consideration of its societal impact.
“The Utility Regulator should have the power to prevent these extortionate rises from taking place. The Utility Regulator has a remit and responsibility to protect consumers and they should be calling for intervention and public ownership.
"Other countries have seen bills frozen and the scale of profits challenged - there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be the same case here.”
In response a spokesperson for the Utility Regulator said the number one reason for rising electricity bills is exceptional increases in international wholesale energy costs which make up over half of consumers’ bills.
This is the same reason that prices have also risen across the UK, Ireland and across Europe, they said.
The spokesperson for the independent non-ministerial government department added: “Our job is to ensure that the prices people pay reflect the costs of regulated suppliers, and to act for Northern Ireland consumers to make sure that, when wholesale costs fall, this will be reflected in their bills as soon as possible.”
Power NI is the only price-controlled electricity supplier in Northern Ireland, “providing customers with an additional level of safeguarding” in that tariffs are adjusted through a regulatory formula with all costs approved by the Utility Regulator.
The company has said the change is entirely due to the sustained unparalleled price increases witnessed in the wholesale energy markets, which have been impacted by ongoing global issues.
They advised customers they can offset this increase by ensuring they are on the best payment plan for them and registering for Power NI’s online billing, to save up to £60 per year.
William Steele, Director, Power NI Customer Solutions, said: “We work hard to keep our prices as low as possible and have absorbed costs for as long as we can.
“Regrettably, geopolitical factors outside our control, have resulted in prolonged high costs in the international wholesale energy markets.
“Like other suppliers we have no choice but to pay these increased costs, which feed into the price of wholesale electricity and have a knock-on effect on tariffs.”
Raymond Gormley, Head of Energy Policy at the Consumer Council said this is Power NI’s second tariff increase this year and its biggest since October 2008.
Mr Gormley said: “With 53% of prepayment electricity consumers telling us they have had to cut back on food purchases to be able to afford a top up, many households are going to need significant financial support in the coming winter.
“At a minimum, this support should include re-running the Department for Communities Energy Payment Support Scheme for a wider group of people and re-establishing the Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme that the Consumer Council worked hard to get off the ground in partnership with the Department, energy companies and Bryson Charitable Group.”