“250,000 gas connections by 2019 in Northern Ireland. That’s a target we set ourselves back in 2014” says Jenny Pyper, Chief Executive and Board member at the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation (NIAUR, or Utility Regulator).
“We knew that more consumers wanted to have the choice of heating their homes and businesses with gas. It’s very satisfying to set a challenging target, which benefits households and businesses, and then seeing real progress towards achieving that ambition.”
By April 2018 244,000 gas connections had been achieved. Jenny is confident that the target will be met and exceeded next year.
This is one example of the real life impact of the Utility Regulator, the economic regulator of the electricity, gas and water industries in Northern Ireland. It’s not only a unique organisation in Northern Ireland but is the only multi-utility regulator of its kind in the UK.
“Saying that you are an economic regulator might not be the most exciting statement in the world but for us our job is simple. It is about protecting the interests of consumers and empowering them to make choices. We expect nothing more than we, as a team, Board members and staff, all do our very best for all of Northern Ireland’s energy and water consumers”.
And protecting consumers is both short- and long-term objective:
“We regulate companies with a combined value in excess of £3 billion. Some of our decisions have an immediate impact on consumers. Most people know about us because we approve electricity and gas bill changes and charges for Northern Ireland Water’s business customers. Our promise to consumers is that we will do our job to make sure any increases are checked and can be justified.”
Then you have more long-term, strategically important projects. Getting lights to homes and business would not be possible without the new wholesale electricity market on the island of Ireland, the ISEM (which is worth €2.1 billion), which went live on 1 October 2018.
Jenny says of the ISEM “An awful lot of work went in over the last five years to make that happen and we are confident that it will bring competition and choice and exert downward pressure on prices”.
For her Board colleagues and the senior executives in the organisation, the significant range of decisions and issues is part and parcel of being involved with a unique organisation.
“Our job is varied and the challenges are many. A big part of what we do is about taking the opportunity regularly to take the temperature and meet with our stakeholders. This could be meeting the leadership teams of the utility companies, getting on the ground with our hard hats to visit utility assets, meeting consumers and their representatives at conferences and events”.
The Utility Regulator is also looking to the future by developing a new corporate strategy. The strategy is being developed against a background of ongoing uncertainty around ‘Brexit’ and the impact on energy and water policy of there being no NI Executive (particularly around planning decisions on infrastructure).
“The context for our new strategy is challenging. But we do think there is a need and an opportunity to set out a clear roadmap for the future. This includes a clear statement about how we put the consumer at the centre of our new strategy.
How we take steps to make the ‘energy transition’ to a low carbon future happen. How we deal with technological change, such as the increasing adoption of electric vehicles. Making all the utility networks from electricity to water, fit for the 21st century. The challenges for the future are many but we are ready to meet them now”.
The Utility Regulator, in conjunction with the Department of Finance in NI are holding a competition to recruit new appointees to its Board. If you think you have the experience and ambition to play a leading role in protecting NI energy and water consumer interests and provide them with greater choice, we’d love to hear from you.