One of Ofgem’s most senior figures in its RHI team was explicitly told of exploitation of the scheme in GB to the extent that a sheep farmer was giving up farming to “rake in” RHI money – but never passed that on to Stormont.
Jacqueline Balian did pass on the explicit warning about a key flaw in the scheme – the ability to install multiple smaller boilers on the most lucrative subsidy rate – to DECC, the Whitehall department running the GB scheme.
However, as on multiple other occasions, Ofgem, the GB energy regulator which ran RHI for Stormont, did not alert the authorities in Northern Ireland.
Inquiry barrister Joseph Aiken told the inquiry that in February 2014 Ms Balian, who was head of operations on the RHI scheme for Ofgem, told DECC that “one thing, however, you need to be aware of is the amount of noise about the multiple 199kwh boiler issue”.
“Many of those present mentioned it, with one saying ‘I know quite a few people in our local farming community who are saying they’re giving up sheep and just raking in the money from the RHI’.
“Others saying they’re being asked all the time about putting in multiple installations and that reasons for fitting multi-biomass boilers are being sought far and wide.
“One or two asking if this can possibly be right and saying that they don’t agree with it. But all their clients are asking for it. Others asking how long they have before the loophole is closed.”
Inquiry panel member Dame Una O’Brien said: “That is unbelievable.”
At that juncture, just 110 boilers were on the Northern Ireland scheme – about 5% of the ultimate number.
Dame Una added: “Here we are in the last week of the inquiry and we can still be shocked by how blunt these emails are – people who, to be fair to Ms Balian, she was out on the ground listening to what people were saying and feeding it back. It’s just the frustration that knowledge was knocking around in time to have shared it with DETI.”
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin said it was necessary to be “careful” about that example, because it was “anecdotal” and seemed to suggest something simply illegal.
The evidence emerged as Ofgem chief executive Dermot Nolan was questioned at the inquiry. Speaking about the wider evidence put to him around cooperation between Ofgem and Stormont, Mr Nolan said: “I think we told DECC [the Whitehall department] more than we told DETI – that was a significant failure.”