Consumers and business owners have been urged to switch electricity suppliers amid anger over an 18% jump in charges by Northern Ireland's biggest supplier.
Power NI has blamed rising wholesale costs for the huge increase, which comes on top of a rising cost of living for consumers and the soaring cost of doing business for firms. Pubs of Ulster, which represents pubs in Northern Ireland, said it had called a meeting of energy companies and pub owners to discuss a simple switching programme.
"This is a first response to the news that we woke up to and we urgently need to sit down with the energy companies and work out how to reduce costs through a viable switching process. The most competitive energy companies are likely to gain customers, but we need to engage and make the process accessible to all our members straight away". Power NI's main competitors in the domestic market, Airtricity and Budget Energy, are also expected to increase prices.
Budget Energy, which is based in Londonderry, confirmed that it would be putting up its prices.
Managing director Eleanor McEvoy said: "We will be increasing our prices but haven't made the final decision on by how much or when."
Speaking yesterday, Airtricity said: "Airtricity always keeps its prices under review. However, we have no plans to make any announcements today." But its parent company, SSE, said it would announce price increases – as it revealed a 27.5% increase in profits to £410m to March 2012.
The Utility Regulator said it had scrutinised Power NI's proposed 17.8% increase and given it its approval. Nonetheless, Shane Lynch of the Utility Regulator said the company did not have to put prices up by 17.8%.
"Whilst Power NI had the right to put their prices up, they didn't necessarily have to put prices up by this amount."
A spokeswoman for the Consumer Council said it was writing to the regulator to clarify whether the rise had been unavoidable.
Power NI was not available for comment on whether it could have imposed a lower increase.
Power NI's 17.8% price increase will bring the average household bill in Northern Ireland to £595 – higher than the £565 average bills of other parts of the UK. It is also higher than the UK average of £548, but considerably lower than the Republic's £697 average.