Belfast Telegraph

Planned cuts in RHI tariffs 'will devastate' agri-sector

Significant pressure: Tom Forgrave
Significant pressure: Tom Forgrave
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Boiler owners signed up to the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive that led to Stormont's collapse have warned that the agriculture sector in Northern Ireland faces devastation with the forthcoming changes to the botched green energy scheme.

Some have hit out at Stormont officials for keeping them in the dark over what is going to happen.

A lack of cost controls had led to spending on the scheme spiralling out of control, with some users burning biomass just to take advantage of the over-generous subsidies on offer.

But in the aftermath of the scandal, some boiler owners now say the uncertainty over future reductions in tariffs - which the Government guaranteed - have left them facing financial ruin.

And many say they may revert to fossil fuel once again - a move at odds with the Government's drive for sustainable energy.

Many on the scheme say they face mounting debt and potential financial ruin based on the investments they made and loans taken out to cover boiler installation costs.

Some paid out hundreds of thousands of pounds and said the returns have barely made a dent in their initial costs.

While they freely admit that there will be those on the scheme who have made a profit by running boilers needlessly, they feel unfairly targeted by the Government's attempts to close down the scheme and reduce overspend.

Estimates had put the potential overspend cost in the hundreds of millions of pounds.

However, reductions in tariffs have curtailed this.

"People dodge car tax, so does that mean we should do away with all cars?" said one boiler owner.

"We have been betrayed by the Government... this scheme was promoted by them and guaranteed by them. We expected a return after 20 years and now we facing losing a considerable amount of money.

"How can we trust them again?"

The Department for the Economy has held a consultation exercise on the future of the scheme.

Current temporary legislation on the impending reduced tariffs is to end in March.

New proposals on its future are yet to be published, with the department expected to make an announcement in the near future.

Boiler owners claim they have been told if no new legislation is introduced, then the scheme will be shut down. However, many expect a drastic cut in tariffs which could lead to them having to pay to be on the scheme.

Last week, Sinn Fein called on the Department for the Economy to shut down what it described as a "shambolic" scheme.

Laying the blame at the door of the DUP, Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said RHI was a "byword for everything that was wrong in the political system here in the North".

However, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development had promoted the scheme when Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill was minister, and Mr Murphy himself had called for the scheme to remain open while efforts were being made to close it to new participants.

A Freedom of Information request to Ofgem, the energy regulator, showed that the highest uptake for the RHI scheme came during the final two weeks in February 2016, after Mr Murphy lobbied to keep the scheme open.

More than 1,100 businesses signed up to RHI, many of them poultry businesses connected to chicken giant Moy Park.

The Belfast Telegraph spoke to a number of RHI boiler owner owners over recent days. Most spoke on condition of anonymity.

Chicken farmer Tom Forgrave - a boiler owner and former head of the Ulster Farmers' Union poultry committee - said reducing the tariffs or ending the scheme would devastate rural businesses.

He said it would put significant pressure on the mushroom growing industry here, which is reliant on the boilers.

"The RHI scheme was an incentive to get businesses to move away from fossil fuel," he said.

"Current proposals will mean mass reversion back to fossil fuels.

"Many made big investments, took out big loans and now they are left without any idea as to how to pay off the money back.

"If they cut the tariff it will devastate."

There is a fear in agricultural circles a similar RHI scheme in Great Britain and a soon-to-be introduced scheme in the Republic will further squeeze Northern Ireland farmers.

"The scheme in the Republic will have almost the same level of tariffs as we had at the beginning," Mr Forgrave, who gave evidence to the RHI Inquiry into the scandal, added.

"We've the same expenses but not a word is said, it will make us extremely uncompetitive.

"It will put chicken farming in Northern Ireland at a disadvantage and if you are the likes of Moy Park - Northern Ireland's biggest employer - you will go to where it's most advantageous to produce your chicken."

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