Months before cost controls were introduced on the RHI scheme, major poultry processor Moy Park was aware of the looming changes and passed the information on to farmers.
The firm has told the News Letter that Stormont officials in Jonathan Bell’s department freely volunteered what was commercially sensitive information which it is now clear contributed to the huge spike in applications as word spread of the looming cost controls.
Moy Park said that the information was given to it in summer 2015 – months before the controls were introduced in November of that year.
The company claimed that during the summer of 2015 it was “widely known that changes to the scheme were pending” – even though that information was not officially announced until September.
Responding to a question from this newspaper, Moy Park said: “DETI directly advised us of this and at no time was it indicated that this information should be treated as confidential.
“We discussed the implications of the changes with supply farmers who were in the pipeline, as the proposed changes meant that 99Kw boilers would not be the appropriate boiler to use under the revised scheme and we were aware that farmers may have made financial commitments to install this type of boiler.”
When asked if it had attempted to delay the implementation of cost controls at any point, Moy Park said that after it had been told by DETI in summer 2015 that cost controls were coming “we stated our support for the proposed tiered scheme”.
It added: “We also made the department aware that transition between schemes could be an issue for those in the pipeline awaiting order fulfilment, particularly as the new scheme allowed for a larger boiler size.”
Moy Park also said that it had “for many years” been a proponent of the benefits of biomass heating systems, which produce healthier and higher quality chickens.
The firm confirmed that it had “made its contracted producers aware of the scheme” but stressed that “we advocate the responsible and appropriate use of heat at all times”.
Meanwhile, internal Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) emails which have been leaked to the News Letter show that on July 9 2015 DETI official Seamus Hughes emailed Christopher Osborne in the UFU to respond to Mr Osborne’s request for a “grace period” for farmers planning to install boilers under the uncapped RHI scheme.
The DETI official said: “We have been taking views from Moypark (sic) and a range of stakeholders over recent days including what has come forward from UFU and are currently assessing those views and how we might move forward.
“The potential for a grace period is a difficult one given that we are currently already over budget and this position needs to be addressed urgently. That said, we are of course understanding of people who have already made commitments...”
In February, the UFU told the News Letter: “We are aware that Moy Park encouraged its farmer suppliers to use the scheme to reduce costs and their carbon footprint.”
Last year the Audit Office said that in cases such as the poultry industry, where chicken houses legitimately have significant heating requirements, there would be an 82% return on the farmer’s investment if the boiler ran 24 hours a day. By contrast, a farmer anywhere else in the UK would see a return of 7% in the same situation.
The Audit Office said that in the poultry industry a biomass boiler could be used “almost all of the time” and that “in an extreme case of the boiler being operated 24 hours a day...very large profits could be realised”, even though the use was in line with the spirit of the scheme.