RHI: 'Major inconsistencies' identified in inspections dismissed as 'minor' by department
AN energy watchdog's RHI inspections found "major inconsistencies" in boiler installations in 2015 – but the Stormont department in charge of the scheme dismissed them as "minor".
The extent of some compliance issues in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme are revealed in inspection reports obtained by The Irish News.
Details emerged as the Department for the Economy (DfE) is this week expected to release the names of individuals receiving the subsidies.
Ofgem carried out four inspections in early December 2015 before the RHI scandal flared and uncovered problems with three of the installations.
Inspectors found some claimants were running their RHI boilers much longer than expected. One installation was operating at more than double the stated usage, while two were running at treble the expected duration.
One of the reports described "major inconsistencies" between what was applied for and how the installation was actually being run.
The three inspections were briefly noted in last year's Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report which first exposed the scale of the RHI scandal.
It raised concerns over the low rate of inspections being carried out on the more than 2,000 non-domestic installations in Northern Ireland.
The report also questioned the Department for the Economy (DfE) on the apparent lack of sanctions for RHI claimants failing to adhere to the scheme.
It said: "The low rate of inspection is compounded by the fact that when issues are identified by the inspection process it is very unclear if anything is done about it – particularly by the department."
However, when asked about the compliance issues identified in 2015, DfE dismissed the concerns.
The NIAO investigator wrote: "The department has told me that it views the non-compliance issues in the three cases as being minor."
A public inquiry has been launched into RHI after it ran a projected £490m over budget amid claims of abuse – including a farmer allegedly heating an empty shed for profit.
The state-funded initiative was supposed to encourage the use of eco-friendly wood pellet boilers, but paid out more in subsidies than the cost of fuel. A lack of cost controls meant that the more heat was generated, the more money was paid.
It was launched in 2012 by DUP leader Arlene Foster when she was enterprise minister.
She has said she expects to be vindicated in an inquiry into the scheme's failings, led by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin.
As the 'cash for ash' scandal gathered pace last winter, it led to the collapse of the executive, a snap assembly election and the ongoing political deadlock at Stormont.
The NIAO report said the overall RHI inspection rate fell from four per cent in the first six months of the scheme to 0.86 per cent between 2012 and February 2016.
Between 2013 and December 2015, just 23 audits were conducted.
Details of the Ofgem inspections in 2015 emerge amid a setback to DfE's plans to inspect all RHI boilers.
The inspections programme had been due to start earlier this month in a bid to uncover abuse of the botched scheme and reduce the projected overspend.
However, DfE has been unable to appoint a company to carry out the work "as none of the bids fully met all of the tender requirements".
On the Ofgem reports, a DfE spokeswoman said the RHI scheme is administered by the watchdog.
"The arrangements in place include carrying out site inspections to ensure compliance with the scheme regulations and guidelines," she said.
"Of the scheme inspections carried out in 2015/16, and referred to by the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the department was advised that the issues of non-compliance in the three cases related to fuel records and heat loss calculations.
"Ofgem considered each non-compliance and has taken appropriate actions in each case.
"This includes ensuring that no payments would be made until Ofgem were satisfied that participants had achieved ongoing compliance with the regulations."