A Stormont minister has done a major U-turn on energy subsidies for land-based wind turbines, admitting that his initial proposal – which MLAs refused to speed through the Assembly over the summer – would have hit every electricity customer in the pocket.
DUP minister Jonathan Bell – who is currently out of office for several days due to the DUP’s policy of rolling ministerial resignations – announced that Northern Ireland will now not retain a more generous system of subsidies for wind power than in Great Britain.
Mr Bell’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) released its proposal for a brief two-week consultation on Wednesday.
In it, Mr Bell said: “Whilst renewable energy in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter, it is clear from discussions with DECC [the Westminster department] that should we maintain a different policy on the NIRO [Northern Ireland subsidy scheme] closure to new onshore wind than in GB, the cost impact of that decision would be borne solely by the relatively small number of NI consumers rather than by all consumers across the UK.”
The move represents a U-turn from DETI’s stance in July when it put huge pressure on the enterprise committee to urgently approve its proposals.
At the time, MLAs resisted the pressure because they feared that consumers could end up shouldering the cost.
The statement by DETI effectively confirms that their concerns were well-founded.
Mr Bell said that he was proposing to align Northern Ireland with Westminster’s policy “of closure to onshore wind in 2016 but with grace periods for those projects which meet certain eligibility criteria”.
One of the grace periods will protect larger wind developments – so-called “cluster” projects.
He said that DETI had been told that if it wanted to deviate from Westminster’s policy “Northern Ireland consumers will have to meet all of the associated additional costs”.
In June, after Westminster announced big cuts to wind subsidies, Mr Bell had said: “I want to make it clear now, however, that I do not intend to follow the Westminster government’s policy to close the existing scheme early.”
On Wednesday Mr Bell said that not to have followed Westminster’s lead would have added around £5 to an annual domestic electricity bill and around £10,000 to a large energy user’s bill for a period of 20 years.
In July, DETI had pressed the committee to fast-track through the new rules to protect some renewable energy projects which would be threatened by Westminster’s decision to cut the lucrative subsidies.
At the committee hearing, senior DETI official Chris Stewart claimed there had been a “sea change” from London over the preceding days and that when he asked London to reassure him that Northern Ireland would not be charged extra for the policy proposed by Mr Bell the answer from London had been “a very clear yes”.
He claimed that there had been letters from London that very morning confirming that “verbal assurance”.
Yet when MLAs asked for the letters to be produced and read them, the committee was not happy with how they had been summarised by Mr Stewart.
In fact, one of the letters from Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, appeared to contradict some of his claims. She wrote: “I confirm my position that should you maintain a different policy ... than in GB, the cost impact of that decision should not be funded by GB consumers.”
Enterprise committee chairman Patsy McGlone said the change of stance vindicated the committee’s position.
“This is an example of a committee working effectively in the interests of consumers,” he said.
“The department wanted the committee to rubber stamp something which would have cost consumers millions of pounds and, with the committee working on a cross-community and cross-party basis, they were sent away to do their homework.”