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Jonathan Bell warned poultry shed heating was fuelling RHI costs surge

Flaws in setting the scheme's subsidy rate meant claimants could earn more cash the more fuel they burned

CIVIL servants warned former enterprise minister Jonathan Bell that a surge in demand for poultry shed heating systems was rapidly driving up the cost of Stormont's botched green energy scheme.

In July last year – months before spending on the lucrative £1.2 billion scheme was finally curbed – officials within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) sent Mr Bell an urgent memo highlighting the spiralling cost of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

The Strangford MLA had taken over the enterprise portfolio from Arlene Foster just weeks before.

The internal document, which was among those released last week by Economy Minister Simon Hamilton after public calls from Mr Bell, noted that despite a fall in the price of oil, applications for the RHI had "significantly increased".

It said that in the previous 12 months "applications have increased from 200 to 700" and noted how the growing demand "has put pressure on the NI RHI budget with committed monthly payments (for the next 20 years) rising from £430k to £1.5m".

"This increase has been driven by a move in the poultry sector away from LPG (liquid petroleum gas) heating systems to biomass heating systems in broiler houses," the official said.

Although the names of the 2,000-odd RHI claimants have not been made public, it is understood the list includes a high number of poultry farmers.

July's Audit Office report into the flawed green energy scheme highlighted the heavy financial burden poultry sheds placed on the RHI budget, even though they operate completely within the scheme's rules.

"In some cases such as in the poultry industry, it is possible that a biomass boiler could be used almost all of the time in order to replace an oil boiler," the spending watchdog said.

"In an extreme case of the boiler being operated 24 hours a day and only being stopped for servicing, as shown in very large profits could be realised, even though the use of the biomass boiler would still be in line with the spirit of the scheme."

Multinational poultry processor Moy Park has declined to comment on how the RHI helped create an environment where its costs and those of its suppliers had been lowered significantly.

In February this year, when the scheme was shut down due to a massive overspend commitment, Moy Park’s David Gibson said the RHI had been beneficial in "supporting sustainable and welfare-friendly poultry production".

Green MLA Clare Bailey said the revelation about poultry farmers' demands on the RHI rapidly driving up costs raised questions that needed answered in a forthcoming inquiry.

"The Green Party support the calls for a judge-led inquiry and that any inquiry that takes place needs to hear from those who stood to gain the most," she said.

"If the poultry sector have gained so substantially from the taxpayer I would hope they could come forward and now support a tiered tariff payment scheme."

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