There will be no disconnections this winter for anyone, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) has told an Oireachtas committee.

A total moratorium on disconnections will operate from 1 December to the end of February, the regulator told the Committee on Environment and Climate Action.

Bríd Smith, Solidarity-PBP TD, had recounted how a 78-year-old woman in her Dublin South Central constituency has stopped using her electric chair because of rising energy costs.

CRU chairperson Aoife MacEvilly said that anyone who is dependent on a medical device "can never be disconnected for reasons of non-payment" of a bill.

For the next category of vulnerability, those who due to age or health face possible disconnection in winter, there will be no disconnections during the six months from this October to next March.

A total ban on disconnections will operate for the three months from December to February.

"There aren't enough customers registered as vulnerable" as many are not aware of the protections that are available to them, Ms MacEvilly told the committee.

She said the CRU is "putting much more money" into advertising to encourage people to register as vulnerable.

Karen Trant, Director of Company Policy, said that there is "anecdotal evidence that people are self-disconnecting", but that there is little information available on this, nor is there any discernable trend.

Réada Cronin, Sinn Féin TD, pointed out that price regulation may now be warranted as electricity is "an essential service".

She said that some people - particularly older people - "dying of the cold" and still paying a standing charge is a "horrendous" prospect.

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Cost not 'the only issue'

The CRU told the committee that it has no power to stop energy companies hiking costs, either the standing charge or unit cost.

Sinn Féin's Darren O'Rourke asked who, if anyone, the energy companies "are accountable to" when they hike standing charges.

While Alan Farrell, Fine Gael TD said that rising standing charges is "an increasingly large issue".

Christopher O'Sullivan, Fianna Fáil TD, said that capping the unit cost of electricity is the only way to "have a real impact on consumers' bills".

But Ms MacEvillly said that the unit cost "is set by competitive markets, and we don't have a role in regulating those charges, and we have not sought to gain new powers in that area".

But she added, "I don't think it's fair to say that cheapest is the only issue for customers".

Ms McEvilly said that EU moves to "claw back" windfall profits is "the right way" to help consumers, rather than leaving it up to "individual regulators".

Smart meters 'hopeless'

Green Party Senator Pauline O'Reilly asked how many smart meters have been installed, and was told that it will be "at least a million by the end of this year".

When asked how many of those are on smart tariffs, Ms Trant said that "it's probably in the thousands".

Fine Gael Deputy Richard Bruton dismissed the administration of the scheme as "hopeless".

As a former minister for climate action, he also suggested that the CRU is not fully using its powers to tackle the energy crisis.

"You are the regulator" in a "pivotal position", Deputy Bruton said, and demanded, "Do you not have more power than you are exercising?"

"There's no point appealing" for people to change, he said, and called instead on the CRU to enforce necessary changes.

"Are you leveraging, for example, status yellow warnings on the weather?", he asked, suggesting that the CRU use the alerts - for example, for cold weather and low wind this evening - to press people to be mindful of their energy consumption.

Ms MacEvilly acknowledged that "we can do more".

Dramatic price increases

The CRU Chairperson had told the committee that the regulator is "deeply concerned" about the impact of "exceptionally high and volatile" prices on vulnerable customers.

With domestic bills "increasing dramatically", the CRU acknowledged that many "are already struggling to pay".

Ms MacEvilly outlined measures it is introducing to help those in difficulty.

These include extended debt repayment for those in debt and help for those with financial hardship prepayment meters.

She also expressed concern "at the current gap in offshore safety regulation", saying that the introduction of a legislative framework at the "earliest opportunity" is "imperative".

Planning delays, and delays in building "critical infrastructure" are "adding high costs and increased security of supply risks for Irish consumers", the CRU Chairperson added.

She noted "a slight decline" in the number of electricity customers falling into arrears between March and June, but a "broadly stable increase" in gas customers falling into arrears.

'Fit for purpose'?

Fianna Fáil Senator Timmy Dooley said that reports on RTÉ, revealing that multinationals suffered financial losses due to the moratorium on data centres, are concerning as they set "a bad image for the country".

"Do you believe you are fit for purpose, in light of what has happened?" he asked the CRU, focusing his criticism on the "overall architecture" of the commission, rather than any individuals.

Ms MacEvilly said that 73 additional staff are being recruited by the CRU, and gathering information is one area they will target, rather than relying on third parties.

The committee also heard that there is no framework to regulate district heating, a revelation which the Committee Chair, Green Party TD Brian Leddin said was "staggering".

Both he and Bríd Smith said that this leaves those customers very exposed should energy providers withdraw.