Belfast Telegraph

Scheme labelled 'RHI on steroids' to be examined

Friends of the Earth's James Orr
Friends of the Earth's James Orr
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

A public spending watchdog is to carry out an investigation into allegations surrounding another green energy scheme.

Comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly will begin his inquiry into payments in relation to anaerobic digesters in February.

The business incentive scheme has been dubbed "RHI on steroids" by environmental campaigners and could lead to payments of more than a billion pounds to UK investors over the next 20 years.

According to Friends of the Earth, payments made following the granting of a renewable obligation certificate are four times higher in Northern Ireland than in Britain.

A Freedom of Information request by Friends of the Earth confirmed 179 anaerobic digestion units have planning permission here, with 69 currently in operation.

They convert slurry into methane gas, creating energy that is fed back into the main electricity grid.

It has been claimed that in a number of cases the generating facilities were "phantom plants" - an allegation denied by the companies themselves.

James Orr of Friends of the Earth said: "This is looking very serious. It's RHI on steroids and there must be an inquiry."

The comptroller and auditor general has a remit to investigate the scheme because both the Department for the Economy and the Utility Regulator have a role.

Mr Donnelly's probe will focus on the renewable obligation certificates, but it is understood it will also be looking closely into the issue of anaerobic digester plants in particular.

In some cases the finances for the construction of the plants here has been provided by London-based venture capital companies.

Farmers on whose land they are built are then paid a fee to feed and run them, with the lucrative subsidies reverting to them after a decade for the remainder of the 20-year term.

Concerns have also been raised that some plants have been built in breach of environmental and planning guidelines.

West Tyrone Sinn Fein MLA Michaela Boyle said: "There are questions that need to be answered around the subsidies offered by the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and allegations of fraud in the operation of the anaerobic digestion scheme.

"I wrote to the auditor asking his office to investigate any potential abuse of this scheme so I welcome confirmation that this will now take place in the new year."

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