RHI Boiler owners being ‘sacrificed’ to make officials look good: lobby group
boiler owners who are using the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) in a legitimate manner are enduring a "nightmare" of repeated inspections with constantly changing criteria designed to "catch people out," the head of a lobby group has claimed.
Andrew Trimble is executive chairman of the Renewable Heat Association Northern Ireland (RHANI), which represents almost 550 people who own boilers on the RHI.
He said that some members whose boilers have passed inspections are being subjected to repeated "hugely stressful" tests in what he believes is a bid to slash the number of claimants.
He claims that some boiler owners have undergone two to three inspections in less than a year, with payments suspended over "minor technicalities". In the autumn of 2016, nearly 300 boilers were inspected by PwC, and issues were identified in over half of them. The details of the PwC investigation were passed to Ofgem for investigation. In August 2017, the Department for the Economy (DfE) appointed Ricardo Energy and Environment to undertake Phase 1 of an inspection programme, which has been completed. Contractors Greenview Gas, Totalis Solutions and Element Consultants are working on the next phase of inspections under a framework agreement.
The DfE says that 10-15 boilers are currently being inspected each week, meaning it could take until April 2022 to inspect the remaining boilers.
"It has been horrific for the boiler owners," Mr Trimble said. "We have zero tolerance for fraud, we aren't saying inspections shouldn't take place, but we also have zero tolerance for incompetence.
"With the tests they keep changing the audit process, every time people pass it they change it to catch them out.
"It started with the inspections under PwC, then it continued with Ofgem and the Department for the Economy.
"It's our understanding that if you have three minor infractions you are suspended from the scheme. During inspections, people are being asked things like the concentration of the anti-corrosive additive in their boiler.
"I asked the chief auditor what that was about, and he said that if people didn't know the answer they would be scored as non-compliant.
"People are being asked how often they recalibrate their heat meter. These are sealed units which are guaranteed for 10 years, but if you say you don't know, the auditor records that you are unaware of all your obligations regarding the maintenance of the equipment.
"I and other stakeholders met with Dr Andrew McCormick in September 2017 and said he had to get to grips with the audit process, because people are hurting.
"I believe that boiler owners are being sacrificed to make the Department look better."
Mr Trimble also claimed that boiler owners were suffering "hardship" due to the length of suspensions from the scheme before their cases were resolved, and that some firms had "gone into insolvency as a consequence of the tardiness".
A spokesperson for the DfE said: "The Department for the Economy is committed to addressing the issue of public confidence and protecting the public purse in relation to the Northern Ireland Non-Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme.
"The previous Economy Minister requested that a programme of thorough inspections be put in place to ensure compliance with the spirit and letter of the scheme.
"A dedicated task force to focus on scheme arrangements going forward was established and the inspection programme forms part of their work.
"The inspection process which includes all biomass installations accredited on a site is designed to assess each installation for compliance with the scheme regulations.
"All 2,128 installations on the RHI scheme will be inspected at some point during the lifetime of the scheme, some more than once, as other information emerges.
"Compliance actions can range from allowing the scheme participant time to take action to bring the installation into line with the scheme regulations, through to revocation and recovery of public money in cases of serious breach."
A PwC spokespersons said that the firm does not comment on client affairs.
No response had been received from Ofgem at the time of going to press.
Number of boiler owners represented by the Renewable Heat Association NI
Total installations on the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme
Between 10 and 15 boilers are currently being inspected each week
It could take until April 2022 to inspect the remaining boilers