Businesses rush to switch to wind -- Northern Ireland

Some 500 businesses around Northern Ireland switched to wind power on November 1 -- the first day that Northern Ireland's small and medium sized enterprises were allowed to choose their green electricity supplier. Belfast based Energia is supplying them with output from Lendrum's Bridge wind farm in County Tyrone. The company says it is confident that 400 more businesses will have signed up for green energy before Christmas.

Energia has signed a £15 million contract for 15 years of output from a 7.26 MW extension to the existing Lendrum's Bridge wind farm, owned by developers B9 Energy and Renewable Energy Systems. Construction of the 11 new turbines is already under way and will be completed in 2003. "We are about to announce a similar but even bigger contract with another wind farm," says Energia's John Mawhinney.

Energia is part of the Viridian group which also owns Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) -- its main competitor in the north. Unlike NIE, which supplies Northern Ireland's franchise electricity market, Energia competes in the deregulated portions of the energy markets of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. According to Mawhinney, the company's wind tariff offers business customers up to 9% savings compared with NIE prices.

Under new rules introduced by Northern Ireland energy regulator Ofreg, all business customers are able to choose a renewable electricity supplier. Renewable energy retailers are required to procure over the course of a year 20% more power than their customers demand. This is intended to balance the economic value of what generators put into the system with what customers consume -- and avoids having to balance renewable output with customer demand on a half-hourly basis, by buying "top-up" power from NIE to cover shortfalls in wind output and selling "spill" onto the electricity system at times of excess generation. The wide gap between prices for "top-up" and "spill" (top-up is expensive whereas spill power attracts low prices) was identified by regulator Douglas McIldoon as a major barrier to wind energy in Northern Ireland.

As well as Energia, two other major electricity suppliers are competing to supply renewable power to Northern Ireland's business sector -- Airtricity, which claims to run Energia a close second with over 500 customers, and ESB Independent Energy, with links to the Irish Republic's Electricity Supply Board.