A man who describes himself as “the foremost authority in Northern Ireland on renewable energy” has admitted he knew that RHI was fundamentally flawed from before it was launched but never warned Stormont about that – and his charity then went on to make money from RHI.
Michael Doran of the environmental charity Action Renewables also came under intense scrutiny from a sceptical RHI Inquiry panel yesterday as he struggled to explain why he had not handed over to the inquiry about 2,000 highly relevant documents until two days ago.
Under a forensic examination, Mr Doran admitted myriad serious errors – and changed his story from what he initially told the inquiry and from what he told the Charity Commission last year after a complaint to it that his charity had acted inappropriately.
Under deeply sceptical questioning from the inquiry, Mr Doran claimed that he had not been following either judicial reviews taken by boiler owners unhappy at how they are now being treated – despite having been instrumental in the case getting to court – or the inquiry, despite the fact that he describes himself as Northern Ireland’s leading renewables expert and despite the fact that the implosion of RHI has been the most significant event in the history of the renewables industry in Northern Ireland.
That issue is potentially significant because his evidence to the inquiry was that he was not paying attention to the question of how lucrative RHI rates of return had been and that issue has been central to both the inquiry and the court action around the time when he submitted misleading evidence to the inquiry.
The inquiry’s technical assessor, Keith MacLean, told Mr Doran that he “struggled to understand how you can take so little interest in either the inquiry’s work or the judicial review”, given his unique interest in renewable energy.
Evidence which the inquiry has compelled Mr Doran’s organisation to release shows that in September 2012 – two months before RHI even launched – he was aware that it was vastly more generous than Stormont was saying at that time in official documents.
A presentation which he gave to businesses included a slide where he had calculated that the payback time on a £40,000 boiler was 2.28 years – meaning that for more than 17 years the claimant was not only getting free heat, but making major profits by running their boiler.
That was vastly beyond the 12% rate of return which Stormont said it intended and which the EU agreed would not breach state aid limits.
Mr Doran – whose charity has a commercial arm – told the inquiry that it had handled hundreds of applications for the RHI scheme, bringing in almost £400,000 in the process, although he insisted that it had not made very much profit on that service.
He was taken to several answers which he gave to the inquiry in writing which were misleading, inaccurate or left out crucial pieces of information.
Until Monday he never handed over about 2,000 pages of documents relevant to Action Renewables’ involvement with RHI.
Mr Doran admitted that his written evidence to the inquiry was “substantially misleading” and apologised for that, but insisted it was not an attempt to mislead the inquiry.
When asked if he did not think that he should have warned Stormont that the scheme it was about to launch was “a potential recipe for disaster”, Mr Doran said that “in hindsight, that is now an appropriate way of describing it but at that time we still understood that DETI had the potential to carry out annual reviews and to apply audits”.
Mr Doran said he thought the original intended rate of return of 12% – which would have seen a boiler paid off in about eight years – would have meant that there would never have been any uptake on the scheme.
Sir Patrick put it to him that he knew the price of fuel and the proposed tariffs, along with having read the expert reports on which it was based. When asked why he didn’t realise the problem at the time, he said: “I don’t know.”
However, he subsequently went on to set out a different explanation, suggesting that he did not tell Stormont of the flaws before the scheme was launched “because it would have been a delay of another year or two” in launching RHI.
Sir Patrick said: “I’m sure you cannot mean that it was worth wasting public money for a year?”
Mr Doran said: “No, it’s not a matter of wasting public money”, adding that he wanted to see a “high uptake” with the potential for it being amended later.
He repeated that if he had raised concerns the scheme could have been delayed by a year or two.
Sir Patrick said: “What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with making sure that public money is not wasted?”
Mr Doran said: “We weren’t considering specifically whether [sic] wasting public money; our main concern was to try to get the scheme up and running so it benefited Northern Ireland.”
Barrister Donal Lunny asked: “Should you have had more of a regard to the potential waste of public money?”
Mr Doran said: “Possibly yes, if that’s what the inquiry finds.”
Mr Lunny said: “I’m asking you: should you have had more of a regard for the possible waste of public money at the time?”
Mr Doran said: “At that time, in my opinion, no” because he wanted to see renewables incentivised.