'Next to nil' RHI boilers sold since cuts
The director of a heating company has told the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry his company has sold "next to nil" boilers in Northern Ireland since lucrative tariffs were slashed in the wake of the scandal.
Connel McMullan from the Banbridge-based company Alternative Heat said he initially believed officials from the Department of Enterprise (Deti) had properly mapped out the cost controls.
Alternative Heat had supplied 610 biomass boilers in Northern Ireland between 2013 and 2016, with sales doubling to 386 in the year before cuts to subsidies were introduced.
Since then, he said it was of little surprise that his company had supplied "next to nil" boilers in Northern Ireland.
He added that he would "without a doubt" trade that highly profitable year for a continuing RHI that offered lower subsidies.
When the RHI started in 2012, Mr McMullan said he believed the high reward offered was to encourage as many to join up as possible, but felt sure that Deti would later cut the subsidies.
Having already worked on the RHI in Great Britain, he assumed officials in Northern Ireland had a "structured approach to a scheme that was thought out".
He said customers considering the RHI expected a high payback, meaning they could have balanced their books in five years or less.
"With the renewable industry, unless the payback is as lucrative as possible it can be a hard alternative to sell," he said.
Mr McMullan said the RHI was "much stronger than it needed to be" for the market.
During his evidence, the inquiry heard how Mr McMullan's company had kept in regular contact with departmental officials running the RHI.
The business development manager for Alternative Heat, Fergal Hegarty, was told in 2015 that cost controls would be introduced in the autumn.
This information was passed on to Alternative Heat's trading partners and the information quickly circulated throughout the wider industry.
David Scoffield, senior counsel for the inquiry, said they wished to get evidence from Mr Hegarty, but he had spent much of the last year travelling around the world.
Mr McMullan said Mr Hegarty was on unpaid leave at present, but was due to return to work next year.
Asked if his absence was related to the inquiry he said: "Not on my understanding, no".
Although the cost controls introduced in 2015 made the scheme less lucrative, Mr McMullan said it was still enough to make it worthwhile.
He said he was "glad" of the changes as it made it more likely the scheme would be viable in the long term.
In February 2016, however, the closure of the RHI scheme was announced.
Mr Hegarty contacted Deti to tell them it had "very, very serious implications" for biomass boiler firms.
The inquiry heard that Deti official Seamus Hughes told Mr Hegarty it was "a dire situation".
Mr Hegarty wrote to the department again to warn the closures meant firms had been left "out to dry with a basic overnight closure of the scheme".
Concluding his evidence, Mr McMullan said his company had survived by focusing their efforts on the GB market.
"Any business focused on renewables in Northern Ireland has a cliff face to climb and I wouldn't envy their task," he said.
"For our side we wouldn't bank on sales in renewable energy in Northern Ireland, certainly in the next decade.
Despite still having business in Great Britain, he said the RHI scandal meant his company had to live with a stigma.