Turbines had output cut to qualify for NIRO cash – but at cost to public

The actions of Arlene Foster’s Stormont department led to large wind turbines having their output slashed by more than two thirds to qualify for the most lucrative subsidy – but that inefficiency will be paid for by the public.

By Sam McBride
Wednesday, 14th October 2020, 7:00 am
Large wind turbines had their output restricted to get the most lucrattive subsidy
Large wind turbines had their output restricted to get the most lucrattive subsidy

The News Letter can reveal that Stormont’s policies led to perverse incentives which meant that while the scheme was a success at sucking money into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, it was far less successful at doing so in a way which delivered value for money.

This newspaper has seen evidence of an architect which openly described how it had taken a 900kw wind turbine and reduced its output to 250kw to allow it to qualify for the Northern Ireland Renewable Obligation (NIRO).

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How Arlene Foster hiked another green subsidy, and GB public will pay most of th...

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Yesterday the Audit Office published a report which revealed how the green energy scheme, which is far more lucrative than RHI, saw Arlene Foster approve more generous subsidies than in GB, but managed to get electricity customers in GB to pay for most of it.

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly calculated that the total bill for the 20-year scheme could be £5 billion, with 75% of that money coming from electricity bill-payers in GB and the remainer coming from households and businesses in Northern Ireland.

The Audit Office said that since Mrs Foster’s 2014 decision to keep higher levels of subsidy while GB subsidies fell had led to a decrease in the percentage of large wind turbines capable of producing more than five megawatts and an increase in far smaller turbines which are less efficient.

The report said that as a result smaller standalone turbines of 250kw or less had prolifierated to such an extent that although all those turbines together could only at full output produce 13% of on-shore wind generation, they accounted for about 40% of the total NIRO bill for wind.

The architect involved in installing wind turbines for the scheme described them as “an extremely lucrative market for farmers to tap into” and quoted £215,000 as a typical gross income from one turbine.

One claimant told the News Letter that it had not seemed odd to him that the government was incentivising him to reduce the output of a large turbine, reducing the amount of green electricity which it could produce.

He said that the turbine was more efficient than a smaller comparator in that its larger blades could turn at lower wind speeds, meaning that it ran for a longer period – but confirmed that it was constricted from running as efficiently as it could in order to stay within Stormont’s most lucrative band.

There is no suggestion that any of those acting in this way were outside the letter or the spirit of the rules and the practice was going on openly without Stormont discouraging it.

The Audit Office report said that “the high levels of investment in small scale wind generating stations, was driven by the potential for more favourable financial returns, when compared tothe potential returns available to large scale wind generating stations”.

It said that Mrs Foster’s decision to keep the scheme more lucrative in 2014 was a key factor in “a reduction in value for money to the electricity consumer”.

Officials’ predictions hopeless

As with RHI, the Audit Office report reveals just how hopeless Stormont officials were at anticipating that the most lucrative parts of their scheme would be those which would attract the overwhelming number of applications.

A chart drawn up by DETI officials said that they anticipated no one would apply for the most financially advantageous type of anaerobic digester – 500kw units. Yet, having made that the most lucrative option for smaller AD plants, 67% of those plants were 500kw.

Similarly, in the category for largely AD plants, officials anticipated that no one would install plants of between 1,001-5,000kw. In the event, with that the most lucrative option for larger plants, 42% of larger plants were in that category.
The poor predictions replicate what happened with RHI where 99kw boilers were overwhelmingly used, against DETI expectations.

Greens backed AD, now blast it

The Green Party has denounced one of the most controversial ways in which electricity was subsidised under the NIRO – despite the party having endorsed the technology in its manifesto.

Anaerobic digester (AD) plants take in animal excrement and other biodegradable material such as grass or waste food and turn it into a gas which is used to make electricity.

Arlene Foster doubled the subsidy for such plants and they were a significant benefit to massive poultry processor Moy Park, allowing it to both get rid of its contaminated poultry litter and get heavily subsidised for doing so.

The 2011 Green manifesto said: “The Green Party would...introduce a rural renewable energy scheme to allow rural communities and farmers to be paid for the renewable energy they can produce from wind, biomass, anaerobic digestion, etc”.

Two years later, in 2013, the Green Party’s Lagan Valley branch said that “anaerobic digestion is a very good, sustainable way of producing renewable energy for local needs”. Defending the technology, it also said that “we cannot find any examples where an AD plant has caused any health issues as a result of the process”.

But yesterday the party leader, Clare Bailey, said “Don’t be fooled, this is not even ‘green’ energy”, adding that it harms human health, rivers and the environment.

When the party was asked if it still supported AD plants, it told the News Letter: “Anaerobic digestion technology can be ‘green’ if it’s also sustainable.

“However, the Audit Office report has detailed a system of overly generous subsidy setting and unregulated AD plants. This, coupled with agriculture intensification, has resulted in a situation in Northern Ireland where huge amounts of ammonia pollution is present.”

Silence from Foster and from the DUP

Yesterday the DUP was the only party not to issue a statement on the Audit Office report, despite a request for comment from Arlene Foster.

Sinn Fein responded in a restrained way, saying – in a statement which did not even mention Mrs Foster – that “lessons must be learned”.

UUP MLA Roy Beggs said that the Assembly’s powerful public accounts committee, of which he is the deputy chairman, now needs to begin an inquiry into the issue, a proposal endorsed by Alliance MLA John Blair.

TUV leader Jim Allister said: “For a so-called green initiative to ‘not take account of planning and environmental risks’ is frankly staggering.”

SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin said the NIRO was “badly flawed”.

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