Belfast Telegraph

RHI boilers owners claim pressure on to revert to fossil fuels

Scheme intended to encourage greener energy use

The RHI was designed to encourage businesses and farmers to switch to eco-friendly wood pellet boilers (Niall Carson/PA)
The RHI was designed to encourage businesses and farmers to switch to eco-friendly wood pellet boilers (Niall Carson/PA)
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Some RHI boiler owners who were encouraged to take up the scheme to develop a more sustainable, green energy market for Northern Ireland say they are being left with little choice but to revert back to fossil fuel systems.

It comes as government officials have admitted some similar wood-fuelled, or biomass, systems are being replaced by fossil fuel systems because they are cheaper and more reliable to run.

Originally the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was aimed at encouraging business to adopt green heating systems as opposed to the likes of oil or gas.

However, a massive flaw meant boiler owners could rake in huge profits as a vital cap in payments which was in a similar system in GB was not included.

The Department of Economy has moved to introduce reduced payments. Something which boiler owners have acknowledged was necessary. However, they argue the reductions are now too drastic and driving people back to fossil fuels.

A biomass heating systems at the College for Agriculture and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) - which was not part of the RHI scheme - has been replaced with a gas system. Government officials said the 11-year-old boiler was at the end of its life and they required a cheaper more reliable system.

CAFRE officials said it was committed to reducing its carbon footprint and maintained six biomass boilers across its campuses which are part of the RHI scheme.

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"The principal reason for opting to replace the woodchip boiler with a gas heating system was reliability given that we were growing temperature sensitive crops in the glasshouses. This was, of course, a value for money matter," a spokesman said.

The News Letter also reported on a boiler at Maghaberry Prison, which was not part of the RHI scheme, being ditched in favour of the cheaper gas system.

The RHI scheme was at one time projected to cost around £1billion - £400million over budget. Officials now estimate the scheme will cost around £390m - over £200m under its initial budget with the left over money being returned to the Treasury in London.

The Department for Economy, in defending its tariff cuts has said it would be "irrational" for RHI boiler owners to switch back to the more environmentally harmful fossil fuel systems.

It said kerosene is still the dominate heating option for business and they say it costs less to use wood and this was used to determine the current RHI tariffs.

It stressed there were no assumptions made in determining the level of payments but rather "actual data fed into independent expert analysis". It said it was committed to constantly reviewing fuel prices and should they change significantly it would consider a revision. A consultants report is due to be delivered on the matter before the end of the year to the department.

RHI boiler owners claim the tariff reductions put them at a disadvantage as their subsidies are lower to their counterparts in the Republic and the rest of the UK.

One boiler owner and installer told the Belfast Telegraph he was in the process of moving his business to the Republic as the NI market was "no longer there".

The Renewable Heat Association for Northern Ireland (RHANI) which represents boiler owners said the incentive to revert to using fossil fuels was now "inexorable".

"Government officials said it would be irrational for people to ditch the RHI boilers and revert to back to fossil fuels. But government departments are replacing wood chip installations for gas systems," said chairman Andrew Trimble.

Andrew Trimble

He added: "Organisations are going out of business and firms are feeling a real strain to survive because of the heavily reduced tariff.

"The scheme was established to promote green sustainable energy - and in a time of climate crisis the department's actions in cutting the tariffs so much are achieving the opposite.

"Nothing better demonstrates this than public sector bodies dumping their wood chip boilers and going back to fossil fuels."

The Department of Economy has insisted its tariff changes were necessary to end the "perverse incentive" of burning heat to rake in huge sums of money.

It said recent heat analysis showed that NI RHI participants were now using biomass installations in a more energy efficient way in line with the original intentions of the scheme.

A spokesman said gas prices were not quoted publicly and were rejected as a potential comparison for setting RHI payments by independent experts. He also said those in the poultry industry, who would use gas as a backup, were not in the majority of the scheme users, therefore the bigger number of people receiving RHI payments would use kerosene and therefore were still getting better value for money by using the wood system.

The RHI scheme was one of the main reasons Sinn Fein collapsed the power-sharing institutions. A public inquiry into how it was set up and run is expected to report in the new year.

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