Northern Ireland

Renewable energy: Large subsidies not paid to 'phantom' plants

anaerobic digester
Image caption Anaerobic digesters convert organic material like manure and silage into electricity

Site inspections have disproved claims that "phantom" renewable power plants earned large sums of subsidy payments.

That is according to an annual report by the Department for the Economy (DfE).

It said a small number of plants, run in a way that attracted maximum payments, may need to be moved to less lucrative subsidies.

But it added that the financial risks are not the same as those posed by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

Onshore wind turbines and anaerobic digestion (AD) plants were accredited to the Northern Ireland Renewable Obligation scheme (NIRO) to incentivise renewable electricity.

AD plants use organic matter like silage and slurry to generate biogas which is fired to produce electricity.

A BBC radio documentary and an investigative website aired claims of phantom AD plants that were receiving lucrative payments through the NIRO scheme.

Image caption Kieran Donnelly, the comptroller and auditor general in Northern Ireland, announced an investigation into allegations made in a radio documentary

It was suggested that there were up to eight which existed in name only - an allegation denied by the companies named.

Following the claims, Northern Ireland's top auditor Kieran Donnelly announced that he was conducting an inquiry.

'Very small minority'

Since 2017, the Department for the Economy has been checking NIRO's value for money.

In its annual report, it said there are 23,500 generators and risks have been identified with a "very small minority".

What is anaerobic digestion?

  • Process by which micro-organisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen
  • Organic material such as manure, crops, grass or slurry is put into large containers
  • Once this material breaks down it produces biogas such as methane
  • Methane can be converted and fed into the National Grid

On top of concerns raised by journalists about some AD plants, an anonymous whistle-blower made allegations about an expected spike of turbine applications before the scheme closed.

They claimed 300 of them, which did not have a grid connection, would attempt to accredit.

But the numbers did not materialise and only 30 actually got into the scheme.

Image caption There are about 70 anaerobic digesters in Northern Ireland, many on farms

The department said it had found no evidence of fraud, to date, and was concentrating its attention on 10 so-called "off-grid" stations identified as highest risk.

It is taking legal advice on what action it can take, if necessary.

The NIRO scheme does not present the same financial risk once posed by the RHI scheme as it is now closed.

The subsidy is paid out of a levy on customers' electricity bills rather than Treasury money and there is less opportunity for wasteful use of any electricity generated, than was the case with renewable heat.

The bulk of the 23,500 installations accredited to the NIRO are wind turbines, with 89 units generating electricity with biogas produced by ADs.

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