Emails leaked to the News Letter show that some renewable energy firms had detailed inside information about the plan to rein in the ‘cash for ash’ scheme four months before cost controls were implemented.
In correspondence which sheds alarming new light on why there was a massive spike in applications to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, several firms were sharing technical and financial information weeks before the huge influx of applications.
The emails between individuals in the renewable energy industry cite discussions with Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) officials as the source of the information and include the suggestion that clients considering wood pellet boilers should “move asap” to “avoid missing out on the best rates from RHI”.
Until now, it has been believed that the spike came in the period between 8 September 2015 (when the plan to introduce cost controls was publicly announced) and 18 November (when cost controls were implemented).
In that period almost as many applications were received as had been made in the previous almost three years of the scheme.
On that basis, the Northern Ireland Audit Office calculated that those applications will cost taxpayers £480 million.
However, the correspondence seen by this newspaper points to the potential for the spike actually beginning much earlier, with some in the industry aware of the looming changes a full ten weeks before they were made public – and 20 weeks before critical flaws were rectified.
A 1 July 2015 email referred to an “update” from DETI officials about “proposed changes to RHI tariffs...with a proposed implementation in early October”.
The email said that one DETI official said that tiering and degression – two key cost control measures which had been omitted from the RHI scheme three years earlier and which enabled the ‘burn to earn’ abuse – were proposed to be implemented at that date.
It said that an official had told the individual that “in the last 7-8 months DETI have overspent on their budget and the reason for this is the operating hours of the boilers in the poultry sector,” hence the planned introduction of tier 1 and tier 2 tariffs”.
It went on: “This change will only affect new applications after the change comes into force so if any of your clients are considering installing biomass systems we would advise they should move asap to avoid missing out on the best rates from RHI, especially sub 100kW installations.”
It warned of the looming likelihood of degression “primarily as a method of budget control” and said that “DETI are likely to overspend on their budget for this financial year”.
Another email, sent three weeks later on 23 July 2015 and involving other firms, states that the business concerned had a two-hour meeting with DETI officials and sets out 11 detailed bullet points about “imminent changes to [RHI] for biomass”.
The email includes financially significant information, including the pence per kilowatt hour which the department was likely to use for future applications.
One point says: “Implementation date mentioned several times was 5th October.”
And, in a striking reference to one of the major beneficiaries of the scheme, the poultry industry, it said: “Grace period not likely – will just leave RHI open to further exploitation (poultry sector).”
The email also states: “3-4 [seemingly a word missing, but referring to a period of time] lead time on ordering boilers and kit, if you think you [sic] get more boilers in before October then best to get onto [named individual]”.
And – in an indication of the individual’s confidence that they would be able to obtain future inside information before it was made public – the email added: “Will let you know when DETI make final confirmation, I should know before public announcement”.
Another email that same day sent beneath the one referred to above – relayed another conversation with a DETI official “who told me pretty much of what is written above”.
The information in the emails appears to substantiate and elaborate on concerns which were publicly expressed by the department’s most senior official on Wednesday.
Permanent secretary Andrew McCormick told the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that there was “an extra level of information” within the renewable energy industry in the summer of 2015 that the payments could be reduced, so people should “get in quick”.
He also said that a DUP Spad had delayed the planned October introduction of cost controls until November.
The News Letter asked the Department for the Economy – which succeeded DETI last year – whether the department had been aware of the information and whether any officials had been suspended pending an investigation into their actions.
In a statement last night, the department said: “Any and all allegations regarding officials received by the department are being considered as part of the on-going fact finding investigation which was commissioned by the department into the management of the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme.
“The PAC also continues to conduct its separate investigation into the matter. The information referred to by the Permanent Secretary at the PAC hearing yesterday is included in both of those investigations.”