RHI scheme recipients being 'demonised', claims farmer

Thursday, 23 March 2017

'We didn't expect to be treated as if we were drug dealers'


ONE of the farmers at the centre of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme pay-out has hit out at what he has describes as a 'u-turn' by those at Stormont who initially promoted the scheme.

Mountain View Farm Ltd director, Colin Watt, who has received almost 500,000 from it, has been running seven boilers for approximately two-and-a-half years at his base outside Augher. Now he says he has had to take jibes about being involved in RHI and sometimes felt he was being treated as if he was a drug dealer!

The poultry and dairy farmer who, along with several other farm outlets in Tyrone, has emerged as one of the largest recipients from the scheme, has broken his silence and talked for the first time this week about the 'u-turn' he and other farmers who took part in the RHI scheme have suffered.

Mr Watt's view on the way the issue has been portrayed has been supported by another local RHI scheme recipient, LW Surphlis & Son Ltd., Drumlegagh, Newtownstewart, who has received 358,236.

Manager, Adrian Surphlis said he too participated in the scheme on the basis it was recommended, legal and presented as a good opportunity to embrace new technology and help the environment. He added he wasn't happy that all the names of the recipients had been released and agreed that the way they were being portrayed was unfair.

The lists of the names of the RHI recipients was published by the Department of the Economy last Thursday. There is no suggestion that any of them acted improperly.

Mr Watt and other Co. Tyrone businesses availed of the RHI to the tune of 10.3 million. He received 471,971 to date, but says this figure does not take into account the fact that he had to borrow some 375,000 to get into the scheme and 131,000 on wood pellets last year alone.

He feels those trying to change the scheme have attempted to 'demonise' those who entered the RHI scheme in good faith and on their advice. He feels ignorance of the scheme and how it worked went all the way back to Stormont and paid little heed to the realities of getting involved in RHI and making it work.

"The total figure that's involved doesn't reflect the investment we had to put in to be participants in the scheme. I invested 375,000 and was encouraged to get into renewables to move away from fossil fuels. I was led to believe that unless the country as a whole went renewable, Europe was going to impose fines as renewable energy targets were not being met."

He added it was he and farmers like him that had to take the chance with the scheme.

"Everyone seems to be fond of saying every 1 you spend you get 1.60 in return. When I took it out the pellets were 179, they are now 148 but they could have been 220 today for all I knew. We're the ones that took the chance, not just on money we had, it was borrowed money. Who else borrowed money to put into this? We're the ones that took the chance.

"Some keep repeating that we are making 60 on every ton of wood pellet we're burning but this is, for want of a better phrase 'fake news' and very simplified. I can tell you if economy minister Simon Hamilton's cost controls are introduced as published, we will in fact be losing 60 on every ton burned at the current price and remember, the price of wood pellets is set to rise. Does he know what they are going to cost next year? I'm currently using 900 tons a year and when you have to repay your initial capital investment on what's already spent, there's not much incentive - they'll have to rename the scheme!"

Mr Watt said farmers were always keen to embrace new technology and that's what they done in this instance too. However, if he and other farmers had known the way it was going to be handled, they would have thought twice about getting involved. It would not have made economic sense.

"Lots of farmers are keen to embrace the latest technology and that's all we have done. We didn't expect to finish up being treated the same as if we were drug dealers. The whole thing could have been handled much better. It is all above board, but now they are attempting to change our agreements."

He claimed they now wanted farmers to go back to using gas which would make their original investment a waste of time.

"The changes they want to make to our contracts are so poor that it wouldn't have attracted any of us to take part if it had been like this at the start."

Looking to the future Mr Watt he and farmers like him just had to carry on until a clear rate was set.

"If things go forward at the rate which the department of the economy is proposing, all the boilers will be taken out of use as it would be uneconomic to burn wood pellets - more expensive than even using gas!"

He warned that if their current rates changed dramatically all farmers involved would take a 'big hit' which would place their businesses in jeopardy.

"It would be an unbelievable financial hit. It would put my business in jeopardy. When you borrow about 375,000 and you are dependent on this scheme working out as agreed, it would be a major hit if it were changed. We have done nothing wrong but we are being demonised for being a progressive business that embraces the latest technology. They keep talking about a flawed scheme - we didn't introduce the flaws, they have done the u-turn."

He went on: "We can't see how Stormont will be able to change the scheme, if they start doing things like that the whole economy will be finished. How could the government ever hope to attract inward investment and sign up to a deal if they can change the terms of the agreement just like that. If they get off with doing that to us, what's to stop them doing it again?"

The Augher man also pointed out that he and many other farmers had invested heavily on the back of going into the RHI scheme.

"We have further invested in our businesses and that money is spent locally and stays in local economies. People don't seem to count the money we spend on these things. I spent 131,000 on pellets last year for example. It's being made out that all the money we get is profit but we have to run businesses, maintain boilers, pay for pellets but there's no mention of these hidden costs.

"Can you imagine running a car, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year - it doesn't happen like that but that's what they say we are doing with our boilers and this is causing the overspend. If we ran boilers like that how long would they last?

Mr Watt was also critical of all politicians involved in the RHI scheme, especially former agriculture minister, Michelle O'Neill, who, he claimed, had appeared to wash her hands of the matter. He said he could not understand how she could walk away from it just like that.

"When you listen to the politicians on TV debating the RHI you just know they don't know what they are talking about. Indeed the level of ignorance around RHI is hard to comprehend. As someone who knows the industry and what is going on, their level of ignorance is unbelievable. They have no idea of the figures involved or the investment behind the scenes.

"How politicians at Stormont can even think of changing a contract is hard to believe, especially those with legal backgrounds. They seem to think they can change contracts and suddenly all is ok and the overspend is sorted. Some of them talk about cost controls so glibly and claim to now have these in place without understanding that means rewriting our contracts. It's a sad state of affairs when those who are supposed to be administering the RHI scheme don't appear to know much about what they are supposed to be doing," he said.

Mr Watt added he didn't enter into the RHI scheme paying out the sums of money he did just for it to last only two or three years.

"I knew it would take a while for it to pay off, I was investing for the long term and now the government has to honour the agreements made. I can't suddenly decide to stop making repayments to my bank because its costing me too much money or I can't afford it anymore. Anything I do with my bank I have to honour so why does the government think it can do things any different - are they trying to make me pay for their mistakes?"

He admitted he had taken some jibes about being part of the RHI scheme.

"I get the odd dry joke, it's not too bad yet as the names were only published last week but I have to point out again I've done nothing wrong. I joined a legitimate government-promoted business scheme which they now want to demonise to suit their own mistakes," he said.


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