Confusion reigns over future energy efficiency funding in Northern Ireland
A GOVERNMENT scheme designed to subsidise householders, companies and organisations to improve energy efficiency has been extended - but not everyone is happy.
The Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme (NISEP), which costs around £9 million to run annually, had been due to finish in March next year.
But the Utility Regulator which administers the scheme said it won't close until March 2018 following a "request from the minister for the economy".
NISEP collects money through consumer bills to pay for various energy efficiency initiatives such as helping to pay for cavity wall insulation or new boilers.
Businesses have also availed of funding for the installation of LED lighting among other measures.
Manufacturing NI, which represents large manufacturers across the north, among them some of Northern Ireland's largest energy users, said the decision showed a lack of forward planning on energy matters.
Its chief executive Stephen Kelly said "a lot of questions remain about what is going to replace the scheme going forward."
Manufacturing NI actually opposed the introduction of a replacement scheme Energywise, which was due to commence next March, calling it "unworkable".
It would have been funded in a broadly similar way to NISEP in that 80 per cent would come from business and the remainder from household. However, unlike NISEP, non-domestic customers would not be eligible for funding.
"The regulator announced last year that they'd be extending the scheme for at most a year.
"The replacement was consulted on and we were told six weeks ago that the department would be pressing ahead with it.
"Then on Friday afternoon, the regulator arbitrarily issued a statement saying NISEP would continue.
"Questions need to be answered such as where are the consultation responses to Energywise and why hasn't there been any consultation on extending NISEP".
And Mr Kelly argued that any future scheme should not burden consumers with increased bills.
"We believe it should be paid for through direct government funding probably from the Department for Communities," he said.
In its response to the consultation on Energywise, Manufacturing NI said it would expose consumers to larger bills and supported "the collection of a levy from which the consumer (in their case, businesses) cannot benefit".
The Utility Regulator said: "Preparation for the 2017-2018 year will begin immediately and the call for schemes will be issued in mid-September as normal.
"However, given the short timescale available there will be no scope for consulting on or reviewing the format of the extended NISEP.
"The amount of funding will remain the same as in previous years, as will the method of collection.
"All companies licensed by the Utility Regulator in Northern Ireland are eligible to bid for funds as well as other organisations that have met the required criteria and registered with the Programme Administrator, the Energy Saving Trust (EST), to become Primary Bidders. The funding is available for energy efficiency schemes which must be implemented in the 2017-2018 programme year."