Watchdog's failure to pass on RHI concerns bizarre: inquiry's chair
The failure of a UK energy watchdog to share information about potential abuses of the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive with Stormont officials was both "bizarre and incomprehensible", the chairman of a public inquiry has said.
Sir Patrick Coghlin made the remarks yesterday during a session of the RHI Inquiry in Stormont's Senate Chamber that focused on the low number of inspections carried out on biomass boilers installed as part of the scheme.
The probe also heard that a member of the public had informed the counter fraud team at the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) that three biomass boilers had been accredited under the scheme for use in a poultry house that wasn't operational.
The boilers were heating empty sheds and, as they were accredited under the scheme, the owner wasn't required to prove that they were generating useful heat, the inquiry heard.
Ofgem was responsible for organising audits on behalf of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry (Deti). Although the matter was referred to Ofgem, yesterday a senior official from the watchdog could not say whether the site had been checked.
The inquiry also heard that only 1.4% of boiler installations under RHI were independently audited - far below the 7.5% of installations checked in a comparable scheme in Britain.
And during the scheme's first three years of operation, it was revealed only 31 audits of installations were undertaken. In 2014-15, nine of the 12 installations that were inspected were not being used in accordance with the rules.
The probe was told that information about abuse of the parallel RHI in Britain, and examples of how applicants were "gaming" it, were not shared with Deti until 2016.
Sir Patrick described Ofgem's failure to share information about how the British scheme was being abused as "bizarre and incomprehensible".
At yesterday's sitting of the inquiry, Edmund Ward of Ofgem said he could not give an exact figure about how many site audits were carried out in the most recent full year, 2017-18.
However, he told the inquiry it was a "significant sample" of between 50 and 100.
The probe also heard that the Stormont department responsible for the scheme has ordered extra audits of RHI boilers in addition to those that Ofgem has commissioned.
The same contractor - Ricardo-AEA - that Ofgem has used from the outset is being used to carry out these audits.
Ofgem chief executive Dermot Nolan said that not enough audits had been carried out on RHI.
And he said that neither Ofgem nor Deti had checked that the assumptions they were using to determine how many audits were needed were actually valid.
Former Court of Appeal judge Sir Patrick described the admission as "a fairly frank concession".
A senior Ofgem official had already told the RHI probe that in 2014 it requested £30,000 to fund more audits as the scheme grew in size, but was told by civil servants in Deti that no more money was available.
The extra £30,000 requested would have funded 24 additional inspections.
RHI was established to incentivise businesses to shift to renewable energy sources by offering a proportion of the costs to run eco-friendly boilers.
But in Northern Ireland the subsidy tariffs were set too high and without a cap, so it paid out more than the price of the fuel.
The botched scheme sparked a political row that resulted in the collapse of Stormont in January last year.
The inquiry was set up to establish the facts and to investigate why the costs had spiralled.