Belfast Telegraph

Free-for-all as 99% of applicants to botched £270m heating scheme approved

By John Mulgrew

Nearly every application to Northern Ireland's expensively botched renewable energy scheme - described as "one of the biggest political scandals since devolution - was given the green light.

The revelation comes as Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said he would develop a plan to stem losses and deal with anyone who abused the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI, now the Department for the Economy) designed the scheme and appointed Government utility regulator Ofgem to administer it at a cost of £1.5m. The scheme has left Stormont facing a bill of hundreds of millions of pounds.

New figures show that around 2,000 applications for biomass boilers for non-domestic use were approved from February 2013. Just 12 applications were refused in a three-year period.

It's understood some of those rejections - due to applicants receiving money from another green scheme, the Carbon Trust - were subsequently overridden by the department.

It has been revealed the total cost of the RHI scheme is currently estimated to be £269.5m over the next five years, with £144.3m of this coming from the Executive.

The number of applications accepted was revealed in an answer to an Assembly question by Mr Hamilton from Ulster Unionist MLA Harold McKee.

"With 99.4% of all decided applications being approved, it's clear this scheme was little more than a free-for-all," Mr McKee said.

"It's further confirmation that this is likely the most bungled administered scheme that the Executive has ever delivered.

"The sheer maladministration of the RHI has left a crippling legacy on Northern Ireland's finances for the next 20 years.

"And, given the pressures facing our schools, hospitals and support for small businesses, that is simply unforgivable.

"The more that comes to light on the ministerial oversight of this scandal, the more obvious it becomes that ministers were asleep at the wheel.

"There can be no other explanation for a scheme costing the public purse so much, yet seemingly being so easy for applicants to get approval for.

Last night Mr Hamilton said the Department for the Economy was currently developing a proposal for changes to the RHI scheme which, if accepted, would lead to a significant reduction in future costs to the Executive budget.

"This requires further detailed discussion, including legal advice and further engagement with the European Commission, given that the scheme received approval within the State Aid regime," he said.

"I plan to bring a proposal to the Assembly, and issue a consultation document, as early as I can in the new year.

"Additionally, we are also pursuing stronger enforcement of the existing regulations through Ofgem so that abuses of the scheme are addressed as effectively as possible, and that any possible fraud cases are dealt with rigorously."

The RHI aimed to cut the cost of green energy to encourage people away from fossil fuels, but ended up landing ministers with a massive overspend.

It encouraged the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period.

But unlike in the rest of the UK, in Northern Ireland no cap was placed on the money that could be claimed in proportion to boiler size and the hours operated.

Effectively, this enabled a business to burn unnecessary heat 24/7 just to make money.

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