Four years on from the first cuts to Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) tariffs, scheme participants are continuing to pursue legal action over reduced payments.
The next case is scheduled for the High Court in Belfast in April.
It surrounds the second set of cuts in 2019 that saw annual payments for a standard 99kW biomass boiler reduce from £12,140 to £2,340.
The case has been delayed several times since legal proceedings were initiated in March 2019 by Ballymoney poultry producer Tom Forgrave, on behalf of the Renewable Heat Association (RHANI).
Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal, the group’s executive chair Andrew Trimble confirmed that private talks took place between RHANI and the Department for the Economy (DfE) last autumn, but no deal was agreed.
“We were exploring settlement outside of the court process, although I can’t in any way discuss the nature of those discussions,” he said.
RHANI is also in the process of preparing to appeal the judgement of its unsuccessful legal challenge to the first RHI tariff cuts introduced in 2017.
Local RHI claimants argue that they are at a competitive disadvantage because payment rates for a similar scheme in Britain remain well ahead of NI levels.
Trimble said that changing RHI tariffs in NI so that they are the same as the scheme in Britain would be “a great first aid measure”.
According to RHANI analysis, a new entrant to the scheme in Britain could receive up to £9,920 annually for a 99kW boiler, compared to £2,340 in NI.
There was a public consultation on setting revised tariffs from April 2020, but there has been no communication from DfE to me or any scheme participant
Trimble explained that changes to the NI scheme could be introduced ahead of the upcoming court case because DfE has already committed to reviewing its tariff rates.
This followed on from an inquiry by a committee of MPs in June 2019 that concluded RHI tariffs in NI were now “far too low” and the cuts resulted in “a raw deal” for scheme participants.
“There was a public consultation on setting revised tariffs from April 2020, but there has been no communication from DfE to me or any scheme participant,” Trimble said.
He points out that a lack of available funding is not the reason for delaying a tariff uplift as the RHI scheme in NI currently runs a huge underspend.
The latest accounts from DfE show more than three quarters of the £29m budget for the NI scheme went unspent last year, with £22m returned to the British Treasury.
RHI tariffs were originally to be paid to scheme participants for 20 years, but a cross-party commitment was given in the New Decade, New Approach deal in January 2020 to shut the scheme down.
Trimble seems dismissive about the possibility of the RHI scheme being closed early. He points to a letter that he received from Economy Minister Diane Dodds last year where she said the commitment to shut the scheme “is not an Executive approved policy”.
Trimble is wary of this and he suggests that local politicians and civil servants should not oversee any more renewable energy schemes
But the minister has since stated that her officials are developing proposals for scheme closure. So, if RHI is eventually shut down, will RHANI take more legal action? “Absolutely,” Trimble responds.
The New Decade, New Approach deal also included a cross-party commitment to open a new scheme that “effectively cuts carbon emissions”.
Trimble is wary of this and he suggests that local politicians and civil servants should not oversee any more renewable energy schemes.
He maintains that the RHI debacle has damaged public trust in Stormont schemes, mainly because RHI tariffs were cut twice, despite the 20-year guarantee.
“Unless there was a UK government guaranteed scheme, I don’t believe anyone will invest in it,” Trimble said.