A Stormont-backed scheme that turns farm waste into electricity is anticipated by some to “dwarf” the cash-for-ash scandal which has left the powersharing agreement in Northern Ireland collapsed since early 2017.
This comes as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry is due to release its final report in April. Patrick Coghlin, the inquiry’s chairman, has promised detailed recommendations with hopes it will deliver a template to rebuild devolution that could meet Sinn Féin’s test of “no return to the status quo”.
In terms of the sums paid and the environmental damage caused, the new scandal is set to far outweigh the implications of the RHI scandal which centred on a failed renewable energy incentive scheme that has been reported to have cost taxpayers £500 million.
In 2011, then-Minister for Enterprise Arlene Foster, now leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), increased the level of renewable electricity subsidy for anaerobic digestion, a process that turns farm waste into biogas which is then used to generate power.
Safely disposing of nitrate-rich poultry waste is a major environmental issue, as well as a legal requirement under EU directives.
Stormont, in 2011, increased the renewables subsidy to four times that of the corresponding payment in the rest of Britain. It is subsequently paid for by households and businesses through their electricity bills.
The Audit Office is to launch an investigation into the biogas scheme next month, and Stormont officials have referred it to UK energy regulator Ofgem. Sinn Fein officials will also be investigated.
A BBC Radio 4 File on Four programme last December claimed that the north’s agrifood industry lobbied Stormont officials to get increased support for anaerobic digestion.
James Orr, the director of environmental charity Friends of the Earth, said before Christmas that the public had been “hoodwinked” by a scheme that was based ostensibly on protecting the environment.
The growth in the number of anaerobic digestion plants over recent years coincides with the expansion of the north’s poultry industry, which was financed in part by RHI subsidies.
However, the high level of ammonia and other harmful pollutants in farm waste poses a major environmental problem. Anaerobic digestion, unlike incineration, does not remove ammonia from poultry waste.
Ammonia is then fully retained in the slurry left over from digestion, which is spread on farmland and so continues to build up in the environment. According to Mr Orr, anaerobic digestion is a “failed technology”.
“I believe this scandal will dwarf RHI in terms of the sums squandered and the environmental damage that ensues,” he told The Irish News.
By 2015, as the rest of the UK was winding down anaerobic digestion, Stormont was licensing it to dispose of 130,000 tonnes of chicken litter per year.
Venture capital firms from London piled in to lend farmers the typical £2 million cost of building digesters, attracted by subsidised incomes of £800,000 a year. As of last year, 89 such plants had been built.
Northern Ireland now has the worst ammonia pollution in Britain and Ireland, accounting for 12 per cent of total UK emissions.