STRUGGLING householders are opting to have their electricity supply disconnected to avoid falling deeper into debt.
Thousands of people in serious arrears with their electricity bills are having their power supply disconnected.
The chairman of the Commission for Energy Regulation, Dermot Nolan, said he was surprised that three-out-of-four people in serious arrears were opting to have their electricity cut off rather than go into further debt.
In the first three months of this year, 5,000 residential electricity customers were cut off and 1,600 gas customers lost their supply.
Mr Nolan said 200,000 electricity customers and more than 60,000 gas customers, which represents around 10pc of households, were struggling to pay their utility bills.
Families with children were having the most problems falling into arrears, he said.
Mr Nolan told the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications that he found it hard to understand why people would opt to have their supply cut off.
He said the Commission for Energy Regulation said there are very clear procedures to be followed before electricity and gas companies can disconnect.
He went on to say Ireland was highly dependent on gas for its energy needs, which accounts for 60 pc of all energy used. The price of gas had risen by 50pc in the past two years.
"We are price takers and have no ability to influence that price," he told the politicians.
Electricity prices in Ireland are 5pc higher than the European average.
Ireland's high dependence on fossil fuels, which accounts for 80pc of all the State's energy needs, placed the country at a serious disadvantage.
Renewable energy, mainly from wind farms, now accounts for 20pc of all energy generated in Ireland and this was acting as a "genuine hedge" against rising gas prices, he said.
The Government has targetted renewable energy to supply 40pc of all electricity generated here by 2020.
It is estimated that 25 pc of all energy is wasted.
Since last month, almost half a million Airtricity customers had price hikes of 4.7pc for electricity and 8.5pc for gas.
That announcement came a week after ESB/Electric Ireland announced a 5.9pc price hike.
St Vincent de Paul said it was spending €8.8m annually paying electricity and gas bills for people unable to pay.