Belfast Telegraph

Watchdog's damning report lifts lid on widespread misuse of RHI scheme

By Michael McHugh

A damning report by a Stormont spending watchdog has revealed how 10 boilers funded by the controversial "burn to earn" Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) ran virtually round-the-clock.

The RHI scheme for businesses led to the collapse of Stormont in a spending row earlier this year over subsidies worth at least £50,000 per machine.

Each of the 10 boilers burned wood for more than 21 hours a day last year, figures in today's Audit Office report revealed.

The devices were installed before November 2015 when the scheme was modified to significantly reduce the taxpayer bill.

Comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly blasted the botched RHI scheme.

"I continue to have significant concerns about the operation of this scheme and the serious systemic weaknesses in controls that have facilitated the possibility of funding that is at best not in line with the spirit of the scheme and at worst is fraudulent," he wrote.

Mr Donnelly's report into Stormont's Economy Department revealed that:

  • Of 1,687 boilers enrolled in the scheme prior to November 2015, 39% are being used for more than half the available hours in a year "more than 12 hours a day and 7 days a week all year round" - with a subsidy per boiler in 2016/17 of at least £28,000.
  • Ten are being used for 90% or more of available hours, creating a subsidy per boiler of at least £50,000 in 2016/17.
  • After the rules changed in November 2015, usage changed considerably. Of the 251 boilers installed and operating, 96% were being used for 30% or less of the hours in a year - and only one used for more than 50%.
  • The Economy Department estimates the scheme will cost £24m in 2017/18 compared to £52m if no action had been taken to control costs.
  • The cost to Stormont in 2017/18 is projected to fall to £2m compared to around £30m, had the old rates continued.
  • Out of 2,128 boilers in the scheme, 1,419 were part of multiple installations at 437 single sites. The auditor said he was "concerned at the extent of the use of multiple boilers".

He said it allowed applicants to claim "a considerably higher level of subsidy payments than would have been payable for installations with a single boiler of a more appropriate size".

The state-funded RHI was supposed to help businesses pay to run eco-friendly boilers.

But the subsidy tariffs were set too high, and without a cap - so it ended up paying out significantly more than the price of the fuel.

This enabled some applicants to "burn to earn" - getting free heat and making a profit as they did so.

An independent inquiry has been launched to determine who was responsible for the flawed scheme.

Former First Minister, the DUP's Arlene Foster established the RHI in 2012 when she was Enterprise Minister.

Former Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said last night the projected costs up to 2037 for Northern Ireland are around £70m and around £400m to the Treasury.

"Many ordinary people will be shocked to get confirmation that the RHI scheme cost us £27m in 2016/17 and is on course to cost us a further £2m in this financial year," he said.

"The £2m cost shows that Arlene Foster's pledge in January to bring forward a zero cost solution to RHI was worthless," he added.

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