What those leaked emails reveal about the genesis of that enormous spike in RHI applications…

It’s hard to remember at times in the great twists and turns of the RHI scandal that the government fell before it’s had become clear just what happened in this complex and in which order events took place.

On foot of revelations at the PAC that DETI officials were getting the news out to the industry the scheme was closing, Sam McBride yesterday published the names of the officials involved.

The email began: “Update from Stuart Whitman (sic), Renewable Heat DETI via Alternative Heat, Fergal Hegarty with regard an update on the proposed changes to RHI tariffs in NI as part of phase II of the scheme”.

This could suggest that Mr Hegarty – who works for Alternative Heat in Castlewellan – received the information from the officials and then communicated it to Balcas.

The News Letter has repeatedly attempted to speak to Mr Hegarty, contacting his firm by phone and sending him an email, but he has not responded.

Mr Hegarty had until about two months prior to that date been project manager on the RHI management service, run by Action Renewables, a charity set up by DETI more than a decade ago, which is now known to have processed about a quarter of all RHI applications.

The Balcas email said: “Stuart has also indicated that DETI are proposing to introduce a two-tiered tariff for all tariff bands, in line with what is in place in GB.

Stuart indicated that in the last seven-eight months DETI have overspent on their budget and the reason for this is the operating hours of the boilers in the poultry sector, hence the planned introduction of tier 1 and tier 2 tarrifs.

This change will only affect new applications after the change comes into force so if any of your clients are considering installing biomass systems we would advise they should move asap to avoid missing out on the best rates from RHI, especially sub 100kW installations.”

The email went on to mention that “degression” – another form of cost control – was also likely to be on its way, “primarily as a means of budget control”. And it stated that DETI “are likely to overspend on their budget this year”.

The email concluded: “Again, this is just the latest developments (sic) with regard to what DETI are proposing and where they have got to in their consultations to date.”

There’s Action Renewables again. More generally the email exposes a couple of weaknesses in the ministers/SpAds were responsible rather than accountable for the actions of their officials narrative:

  1. Much of the public controversy has focused on the tardiness of Ministers/Spads in closing it down. Most assumptions of guilt have flowed from that delay. Even now, there seems to be no calm or clear account for that delay. But where was their access to scale?
  2. What’s been taken as read in a lot of the reporting is the sheer scale of the spike. Something of that magnitude requires specialist knowledge and capacity, not just tittle-tattle dribbling out of Stormont through a few privately interested SpAds.

The email tells us that the warning was sent from the officials directly to the industry. At which point the distribution network seems to have gone into overdrive to get clients to grab the money before it was taken off the table.

Sam also has the text from a second email sent (from an anonymous source) 22 days after the first one, which suggests officials were by then updating industry contacts an opinion on the prospective timetable:

“I had a 2hr meeting with Seamus Hughes and Stuart Whiteman [sic] yesterday (DETI). Please see below a summary of meeting with regard imminent changes to NIRHI for biomass”. It contained detailed information on the level at which the cap would be set (1,314 hours per year) and the tariffs for each tier (Tier 1 at 6.4p/kWh and Tier 2 at 1.5p/kWh) and said that the “implementation date mentioned several times was 5th October. This could slip to end of October depending on how long it take (sic) the minister to approve DETI’s proposal, however there is a risk on banking on this, I would expect”.

According to his evidence to the PAC recently, even the Permanent Secretary was unaware of these communications with the industry until this last Christmas.