RHI Inquiry: Expert repeatedly raised alarm ... but was ignored

Alastair Nicol warned that RHI was wide open to abuse
Alastair Nicol warned that RHI was wide open to abuse

The RHI Inquiry has revealed how an energy specialist continually attempted to alert the authorities to the disastrous flaw at the heart of RHI.

Alastair Nicol, a specialist energy consultant from Element Consultants who was employed by Invest NI to advise some of the companies it was supporting, repeatedly advised that the best technical set up would involve a smaller number of large boilers – but that clients wanting to milk the RHI were wanting to install multiple smaller boilers to attract the most lucrative ‘burn to earn’ RHI tariff.

Mr Nicol’s reports were paid for by Invest NI under a programme meant to encourage efficiency – yet time and time again he was pointing out that the RHI scheme incentivised inefficient practices.

Mr Nicol is the latest in a long line of people who attempted to alert those in government to what was going on.

In one report, he said: “Unfortunately the RHI payments are so large in Northern Ireland that it pays to waste heat – in other words the RHI payment is larger than the fuel cost. Economically and environmentally this is a very undesirable situation.”

On one occasion in February 2015 – as we now know the scheme was starting to run out of control – he said in a report to Invest NI: “You have asked us to consider installing four separate 99kw pellet boilers so as to generate the maximum RHI.

“Installing four separate pellet boilers at this site will be difficult and expensive and technically inappropriate – although we acknowledge far from technically impossible.

“It is a technical solution driven solely by the RHI payment and not by technically optimal solution.

“We acknowledge that the very high RHI revenue payment is essentially driving the installation of multiple small boilers and that the RHI support is significant – however, there is also an onus to find a technically appropriate solution.”

He went on to recommend that the client “adopt a technically appropriate solution rather than an RHI-driver solution”.

He contacted senior figures in Ofgem, which was running the scheme for Stormont, to alert it to the fact that claimants were deliberately installing multiple smaller boilers to milk the most lucrative RHI subsidy.

He said he found “to my great surprise” that Ofgem was content for the arrangement to continue and had “frustration” at how the situation was being handled.

He said that he was maybe being somewhat “naughty” in expressing his frustrations because “I suppose it’s maybe not my place to say that”.

But Sir Patrick Coghlin said: “I don’t think you need to make any apologies for it. If the regulator who is statutorily charged with regulating the business is not doing that and is allowing a scheme to be exploited in terms of public money then you have every right to raise that with them – as would Invest NI.”