The farmers involved have all confirmed that their applications for RHI support were fully ratified and endorsed at time of application.
In addition, they say the biomass boilers have been used in full compliance with the original scheme and have been relied upon as the main source of heat supply for their poultry houses from 2016 up to this point.
The average investment committed to by the poultry producers is in the range £350,000 to £400,000 – most of which was committed on the back of bank loans secured to install the heating systems and the ongoing procurement of wood pellets.
All claim that they cannot meet the Ofgem request and, as a consequence of the energy regulator’s demand, are now facing bankruptcy.
Commenting on these developments Newry & Armagh DUP Assemblyman William Irwin MLA said that correspondence issued by OFGEM alerting poultry farmers to a claw back of payments is “catastrophic”.
Mr Irwin confirmed that he had spoken with a number of RHI participants, all of whom who he said are deeply distressed with the steps taken by Ofgem.
“In some cases we are talking about repayments of up to £150,000,” he said. “The poultry farmers I have spoken to are completely distressed by the correspondence they have received. They are stressed to the maximum and very concerned by the ramifications of the demands for repayment and what this will mean for their businesses.”
He added: “When I have studied some of the letters, the alleged breaches are focused on the time frames for commissioning the boilers and minimal usage of the installations prior to poultry being produced in the houses. It is alarming to see that a 65 pence overpayment for an entire quarter has been included on one letter demanding the repayment of a sizable amount of money and the farmers’ complete removal from the scheme.”
William Irwin continued: “The arguments put forward by Ofgem and the action being proposed by the Department for Economy will ultimately close these businesses as they cannot afford to pay such a massive amount of money back.
“These claimants already feel like they are being treated like common criminals for even accessing the scheme in the first instance which is a great shame and a further indictment on the scheme.”
Mr Irwin concluded: “It is absolutely scandalous that scheme participants in my view are being made the scapegoats in this issue and they are being hung out to dry. RHI seems to have taken on the guise of an infectious disease that must be eradicated at all and any cost and it is shocking the way that participants have been treated.
“I feel this action must be halted and reviewed immediately by Ofgem and the Department for Economy. I have requested a meeting with the Minister on these matters to put forward the views of the individuals I have spoken with.”
TUV leader Jim Allister MLA is acting on behalf of one of the poultry farmers in receipt of the Ofgem demand. The farmer had received £41 of RHI payment before his poultry house was occupied and he is now being asked to repay £119,120.68.
In a letter sent to the Economy Minister, Mr Allister points out that the actions of the energy regulator are ‘totally disproportionate’. Moreover, there was never any wasteful production of heat on the part of the producer involved.
He said for the sake of £41.68 his constituent is now being asked to repay £119,120.68.
He added: “Really? For the sake of its own credibility, surely, the department would not wish to put itself in such a poor light?”
Meanwhile, Andrew Trimble, the executive chairman of the Renewable Heat Association Northern Ireland (RHANI), is calling for Department for the Economy to close RHI.
He said: “This might seem an odd suggestion given that I chair the association representing scheme participants and given that a consultation suggesting this, closed last Friday but, it is not, and I shall explain why.
“On 31 March 2021, the UK national RHI scheme was closed: it closed to new applicants. After closure, the 17,000 participating businesses and farms in the national RHI scheme will continue to receive quarterly rebates at the promised rate, index-linked and paid until 2043.
“Critically, appropriate measures are in place to ensure that there is no reversion to cheaper, polluting fossil fuels. The supply chain for renewable fuel and service support, will be protected.
“The NI RHI Scheme has been suspended to new applicants since May 2016: it has not yet been closed by an Act of the Assembly.”
Andrew Trimble continued:“The proposed closure of the RHI scheme operated in Northern Ireland means actual termination.
“In other words, this means the ending of the guarantees and promises and legal rights of those who had invested in the expensive, necessary hardware. It also means the termination of a support scheme that has fifteen years to run.
“In a climate emergency why terminate the only operating, environmentally friendly, green energy scheme for heating in Northern Ireland?”