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Taking natural gas to new areas

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Rebecca Kincade on September 22, 2014 - 7:25 am in In Depth

Paul Stanfield, sales director, firmus energy, tells NI Business Now what it takes to bring ‘new’ natural gas to homes around Northern Ireland. 

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Paul Stanfield

firmus energy was granted a licence to build natural gas pipelines to connect customers in towns and cities outside greater Belfast to the fuel back in 2005. Although natural gas is still ‘new’ to Northern Ireland it has proven popular with both residential and commercial customers as it offers lower-cost energy and environmental advantages.

Today firmus energy has more than 70,000 customers across Northern Ireland, more than 20,000 of which are in the new gas areas outside greater Belfast and the remaining are supply customers in greater Belfast who have switched since competition became available in January 2011.

During the last nine years, firmus has developed more than 900km of pipeline and invested more than £85 million in the local economy. The company supplies upwards of 40% of the natural gas consumed in Northern Ireland and as a result has displaced more than 450,000 tonnes of CO² since 2005. Year on year, firmus exceeds its connection targets and the demand for natural gas continues to rise as the fuel becomes available in new areas for the first time.

Due to the increasing popularity of natural gas, firmus has already been granted eight extensions for areas outside the original licensed locations, including most recently, Bushmills and Ballyclare. Communities are quick to realise the benefits which natural gas can bring to an area and the company works pro-actively in partnership with local stakeholders in an effort to deliver low-cost fuel to as many provincial areas as possible.

Introducing a new fuel
Initially when entering each town, the major industrial customers, NI Housing Executive properties and large new build developments are connected first. This then forms the ‘spine’ of the network and allows us to bring natural gas to those along the route quickly, followed by properties nearby.

An initial process in the introduction of natural gas to a new area is to explain how this differs from other fuel sources while at the same time demonstrating its many benefits for homes and businesses, providing information and empowering consumers to make an educated choice about their fuel options.

There is clear evidence that firmus energy’s knowledge, practices and tried and tested procedures can provide reassurance to those who are unsure about the introduction of a new fuel. The company’s engagement does not just stop when natural gas has been installed; firmus continues to have regular communication with customers and has a dedicated customer services team in its Antrim headquarters.

Community relations
Roadworks are an inevitable consequence of building a gas network and firmus has an engineer devoted to focus on each area. Their role is to ensure that there is a presence on the ground and co-ordinate with the construction contractor to ensure notification is given regarding any works to be undertaken. This helps ensure that people living in or travelling to an area are inconvenienced as little as possible.

firmus energy continues to connect around 4,000 new commercial and domestic customers annually in its network areas, which is twice the number specified in its licence terms. The communities within the organisation’s network includes the following towns and many of the surrounding areas: Antrim, Armagh, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Banbridge, Coleraine, Craigavon, Derry~Londonderry, Limavady, Lurgan, Newry and Portadown.

As customer numbers continue to increase, local economies across Northern Ireland are reaping the benefits. In fact, householders who converted to natural gas this time last year have saved 30% on their heating.

firmus energy is committed to investing £10 million per annum to the Northern Ireland economy, bringing natural gas to new parts of the province while creating jobs for around 500 local contractors, installers and agencies. Historically, the company has offered one of the cheapest gas prices in Western Europe and this cost-efficient, versatile, environmentally-friendly practical fuel is becoming increasingly popular with domestic and industrial customers.

Challenges
However, natural gas as a fuel source is still underutilised in Northern Ireland with only 15% of households choosing this form of energy compared to 68% using home heating oil. Statistics also show that England is much more advanced with more than 90% of energy users opting for natural gas as their main heating fuel. The awareness of natural gas still remains a challenge for firmus across the areas in which we operate however; it remains committed to the positive promotion of this greener, more efficient and versatile fuel.

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