I knew about RHI flaws from the start but said nothing, says boss of advice firm that made £250k
The head of a green energy company knew the Renewable Heat Incentive was flawed from the start but failed to tell a Stormont committee, a public inquiry has heard.
Michael Doran endured a bruising encounter yesterday at the RHI Inquiry over his role as director of Action Renewables.
The company was set up to help businesses transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
A registered charity, the company also presented itself as the foremost authority on green energy here.
Mr Doran's written evidence to the panel suggested he knew nothing of flaws in the scheme's cost controls until 2016.
But he admitted yesterday the company knew from the outset and failed to mention this when giving evidence to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) committee in 2011, the year before RHI started.
Around the same time Action Renewables had been giving encouraging presentations to the energy industry about signing up to RHI.
In Britain RHI had a method of cost controls known as tiering, designed to prevent over-compensation.
The Northern Ireland scheme did not include tiering when it started. Junior counsel Donal Lunny told Mr Doran his written evidence about when Action Renewables was aware of the problems was "potentially misleading".
Asked why he didn't warn the committee, Mr Doran said it would have delayed the opening of the scheme for another year.
"I fully accept we might not be in the situation we're in now if we had recommended it at the time," he added.
Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin asked: "I'm sure you cannot mean it was worth wasting public money for a year?"
Mr Doran said he was "comfortable" that Deti could get the scheme off the ground, knowing it could be amended within a year. Questioned why Action Renewables had not followed this up with Deti, he said: "I took a course of action which appeared to be flawed.
"It's not just renewable heat that has been damaged, there's no support for any renewable energy in the industry, so there's a contagion in the industry."
The inquiry was also told that Action Renewables earned nearly £250,000 by advising more than 500 RHI applicants. Mr Doran said there was a difference between encouraging people to abuse RHI and making them aware of how the scheme was constructed.
Sir Patrick described this as a "very, very fine line", especially when Action Renewables was being presented as a charity.
Action Renewables was funded by Deti up until 2011, before payments were reduced and eventually stopped.
Mr Doran said this led to a "difficult relationship" between the two.
"There may have been a feeling in Deti they would have been happy if Action Renewables didn't exist," he said.
"I wasn't inclined to engage with them for various reasons. They were never particularly keen on stakeholder engagement."
He said this meant he felt less inclined to communicate with Deti about problems with RHI.
Written evidence from Action Renewables said it had not actively encouraged people to sign up to the scheme.
Mr Doran accepted this was "not correct", and that the organisation's presentational events had amounted to promotion. The inquiry looked at how Action Renewables had made 40 reports for businesses, recommending ways to save money on energy.
One report said significant returns could be generated if a boiler was operated for "longer than necessary".
Mr Lunny said this went against the purpose of Action Renewables, a charity that was promoting energy efficiency.
"We should not have written that," Mr Doran said. Action Renewables had been paid substantial sums of public money from Invest NI in return for the technical reports it made about heating systems for businesses.
Mr Doran said time constraints meant some of the phrasing in the reports was "poorly worded".
Mr Lunny responded by saying that Action Renewables was getting £500 a day for its work.
The written evidence to the inquiry had only referenced one of these reports made for Invest NI clients.
Mr Doran was criticised by the panel for only filing the vast majority of his evidence -nearly 3,000 pages - this week.
"I can understand that this appears as though we're being misleading. We're not," he said.
Panel member Dame Una O'Brien said she felt this was "frustrating the work of the inquiry", and could not understand why he hadn't instructed his officials to send the reports.
Another role once held by Mr Doran was under scrutiny yesterday. He headed the Renewable Heat Association NI (RHANI), which launched a failed legal bid in 2017 to challenge Stormont cuts to RHI payouts.
He told the panel he had been involved because of an "abusive campaign" against RHI applicants that wrongly suggested everyone was "scamming the system". Mr Doran was also questioned about giving misleading answers when Action Renewables was investigated by the Charity Commission.
Following a report in the Irish News, a complaint had been made to the commission that Action Renewables was helping with RHI applications even though it knew of the problems.
The trustees of Action Renewables told the Charity Commission they weren't aware of anything wrong with the scheme until 2016. Mr Lunny said this directly contradicted Mr Doran's testimony in that he knew of the shortcomings before the scheme opened in 2012.
Sir Patrick said there was an "inescapable inference" he had been misleading the commission. He responded: "It would appear from this document, yes."