Just half of RHI boilers checked by inspectors in past two years
Only half of 2,000 boilers have been examined as part of an inspection programme that began over two years ago in the wake of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) controversy, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
In May 2017, the Department for the Economy (DfE) sought contractors to inspect every boiler on the non-domestic RHI scheme. There are just over 2,000 boilers involved.
However, the procurement exercise did not proceed because none of the bids fulfilled all of the tender requirements. The plan to inspect all sites was then shelved.
Three months later, the DfE appointed Ricardo Energy and Environment to undertake the first phase of an inspection programme which has since been completed.
Three other contractors, Greenview Gas, Totalis Solutions and Element Consultants, are working on the next phase of the inspection programme under a framework agreement.
The department said over 1,000 accredited boiler installations have been inspected as part of the programme, which it expects to end by June 2021.
The RHI scandal was blamed for bringing down the Executive.
The scheme was established in November 2012, its aim being to increase the use of renewable heat sources.
However, it was found to have paid more to boiler owners than the cost of the fuel, resulting in a potential £500m overspend.
The RHI Inquiry has investigated the botched green energy scheme and called a number of high-profile witnesses, including DUP leader Arlene Foster and the party's former MLA Jonathan Bell.
Mrs Foster was Enterprise Minister when the scheme was set up while Mr Bell oversaw its closure as a minister.
The inquiry has yet to set a date for the publication of its final report.
A report published last week by Auditor General Kieran Donnelly revealed that 80% of boilers inspected since July last year may have breached the rules "mainly in relation to past over-production of heat".
SDLP MLA John Dallat, who is the former deputy chairman of Stormont's Public Accounts Committee, said the department needed to explain why it had taken so long to carry out the inspections, which he regards as "a very simple task".
He said: "The failure to carry out a comprehensive inspection of these boilers is fast becoming a story on its own, giving the impression that this isn't really a serious matter which could in some cases constitute fraud.
"The inspections are equally important to those who legitimately installed these boilers for the purpose for which they are intended and they need their names cleared of deception of any kind.
"The longer the inspections take, the lesser the chance of uncovering those who were up to their necks in running burners with the doors open - the very thing that brought the scheme into public ridicule and collapse.
"These inspections must be carried out by competent people who are squeaky clean, have a reputation for integrity and have had no previous connections with any organisation that was tarnished in any way.
"The inspections need to be completed without any more dragging and a comprehensive report produced indicating who will be prosecuted for wanton abuse of public funds intended to support green energy but instead (used for) cash for ash."
TUV leader Jim Allister also expressed his frustration at the length of time it is taking to complete a process which was heralded as "getting to grips" with the RHI debacle.
He said: "Public money is employing these inspection contractors, so I ask again, how much is each inspection costing and what has been the spend to date?
"The taxpayer is entitled to know and will also be interested to know how much will be recovered, if anything, in terms of fraudulent claims.
"The department should provide comment on any progress in that regard," Mr Allister added.
The DfE said: "Due to concerns around potential abuse in the non-domestic RHI scheme, the previous Minister for the Economy Simon Hamilton requested that inspections should be carried out on 100% of the sites on the scheme.
"The Department for the Economy is delivering an ongoing programme of investigating each individual non-domestic RHI scheme installation.
"Excellent progress has been made to date, with over 1,000 installation investigations completed (out of just over 2,000 live installations registered on the scheme)."