In Northern Ireland putting a top of the range heater in an empty shed can be a lucrative business.
In fact farmers can make up to £1 million (€1,188,590) in government subsidies over 20 years, without producing a single crop, animal or product.
The situation is the result of a flawed scheme designed to encourage the use of renewable heating systems. The Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (RHI) was introduced in 2012 with the aim of promoting the use of renewable fuel in the province. Northern Ireland’s current First Minister, Arlene Foster was in charge of the scheme as Energy Minister and failed to introduce a subsidies cap in line with other versions of the same scheme underway elsewhere in the UK.
Beneficiaries often receive more money than the cost of the fuel itself, creating an estimated £400 million hole in the already stretched Northern Irish public purse. The cost to Westminster over the same period could reach £1 billion.
The other problem with the RHI is that non-domestic applicants, who had a 98 percent approval rating, are now entitled to receive payment for the next 20 years.
Renewable energy company Enerpower explain the benefits of the scheme on their website:
“Under the RHI Scheme the owner earns money from the government for every kWh used.”
They added: “The Gilles boiler now saves our customer 2/3 on their energy cost while earning our customer money too!”
An anonymous whistleblower sent a letter to the Northern Ireland First Minister’s Office last January accusing the scheme of leaving it up to the heating installer to decide if a business can avail of the scheme, and claiming that, “large factories with no previous heating have installed three biomass boilers with the intention of running them all year round in order to collect approximately £1.5 million over 20 years.” These revelations were published in a damning report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office.
Eyebrows were also raised when a list of the beneficiaries included many people close to Foster’s party, the DUP. Investigative journalism website thedetail.tv reported that they included former DUP adviser Stephen Brimstone and his brother as well as the husband of former DUP councillor Alison Brimstone who replaced Arlene Foster on Fermanagh council in 2010.
The scale of the financial burden makes this the worst failure of its kind in the history of Northern Ireland’s devolved government, but Mrs Foster maintained that she has done nothing wrong and is committed to minimising the impact on public funds. Her critics have called for her resignation.