Northern Ireland

Stormont executive set for showdown with boiler owners over bid to close down RHI

Plans to finally shut down the botched scheme are expected after committee meets on Wednesday

Cut to payments in RHI scheme were lawfully made to prevent a crisis in public finances, appeal court rules
The Stormont executive is planning to close down the controversial RHI scheme

The Stormont executive has been warned that it will face a costly legal action if it attempts to close down the controversial renewable energy scheme that triggered a three-year collapse of the devolved institutions.

The body representing hundreds of boiler owners in the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme has said it will “use all legal and political avenues to protect 1200 businesses from economic hardship and potential collapse”.

The warning comes ahead of Wednesday’s presentation to an assembly scrutiny committee by senior officials from the Department of the Economy (DfE).

MLAs on the economy committee will be briefed in closed session by a panel that will include DfE permanent secretary Ian Snowden and head of energy Richard Rodgers.

Department for the Economy permanent secretary Ian Snowden. PICTURE: CLAUDIA SAVAGE/PA

It is understood that the officials will unveil plans to shut down the scheme, fulfilling a pledge in 2020′s New Decade New Approach.

Any decision to close the scheme permanently, which could see millions of pounds in compensation paid out to boiler owners, will require the approval of the full Stormont executive.

Responses to a 2021 public consultation on the future of the scheme indicated a strong support for its continued operation with revised tariffs.

The scheme’s lavish subsidies were cut in 2017 amid fears of a £500m overspend.

An public inquiry into the scheme, the roll-out of which was oversaw by the then economy minister Arlene Foster, concluded that it had design and operational flaws but there was no evidence of corruption.

The inquiry headed by Sir Patrick Coghlin cost the public purse almost £13m.

Its report made a series of recommendations to improve governance and record-keeping across Stormont departments.

Andrew Trimble, spokesperson for the Renewable Heat Association NI told The Irish News: “We represent largely family-owned businesses that have invested capital and incurred additional operating costs as a consequence of what was recognised by inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin as a ‘project too far’ for Stormont.”

He said public had been “bamboozled by mis-reporting and misinformation” around the scheme.

“The department has had to reverse its estimated colossal overspend and is now reporting a colossal underspend of even greater proportion – a series of independent inquiries and reports since 2017 have corrected the mis-information that fuelled the scandal more effectively than the heating systems.”

A spokesperson for DfE said minister Conor Murphy was on record saying that the non-domestic RHI scheme should close.

“The minister intends to bring a paper to the executive on this matter at the earliest available opportunity,” the spokesperson said.