Bord Gáis Éireann said this evening that it has started the sale process for its energy business Bord Gáis Energy

The Government is selling the company as part of an asset disposal programme agreed with the Troika and it has been claimed that the sale price could hit over €1 billion.

The company's profits grew by 30% to almost €121m last year.

British group Centrica, French utility GDF Suez and German operator Eon have all been named as possible bidders for the Irish business, which some reports claimed will have a price tag of over €1 billion.

The company's finance director Michael G O'Sullivan said today marked ''an important milestone in the sale of Bord Gáis Energy''.

He said that subject to market conditions, the sale is expected to be concluded by the end of this year.

Bord Gáis Éireann is made up of two major divisions - Bord Gáis Networks, which will remain in State ownership, and Bord Gáis Energy, the energy division.

Bord Gáis Energy operates in the generation and supply market and has about 775,000 customers here. It also has a wide portfolio of onshore wind assets as well as an energy supply and distribution network business in Northern Ireland.

Bord Gáis Networks owns, develops and operates the natural gas transmission and distribution networks in Ireland, as well as the two natural gas interconnectors between Ireland and the UK.