A minister, MPs and several aristocratic landowners have received thousands in public money from a government subsidy aimed at boosting the green transition.
The Renewable Heat Incentive was established in 2014 to help businesses, the public sector and non-profit organizations meet the cost of installing renewable heat systems by paying them a tariff for each unit of heat produced from renewable sources. A parallel system has been set up for households.
However, concerns were raised by the National Audit Office, which concluded that while the schemes had good potential to reduce the UK’s carbon footprint, “the Department has not achieved value for money”.
The NAO also raised concerns about the monitoring of the system and the risk that it could be exploited. Currently, 22,000 companies have signed up to the RHI, which is expected to cost £23bn by 2042.
An investigation by Open Democracy has now revealed that a number of wealthy landowners and MPs are among the beneficiaries of the subsidy. They include International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, MP Philip Dunne, Chair of the Environment Review Committee, and MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, who chaired the Special Committee Hearing on the UK RHI programme. These include the Duke of Devonshire, Peregrine Cavendish; and Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester.
Peter Geoghegan, editor-in-chief of openDemocracy, said: “At a time when energy prices are skyrocketing and millions are struggling with the cost of living crisis, we have found that an obscure heating system of dubious quality is costing billions – and Conservative MPs and even a Government ministers have benefited from it.”
In 2015, Trevelyan and her husband installed two biomass boilers with a total output of 198 kW on the Netherwitton Hall family estate. Using Ofgem figures, OpenDemocracy calculated based on how many boilers and size of property they would likely have received just under £20,000 a year under the scheme. Her boiler runs on wood from the estate. It is estimated that the property will fetch a total of £400,000 by 2035 at 2015 prices. Trevelyan separated from her husband in 2019 and no longer lives in the family home.
Large landowners have generated significant income from the subsidy. Chatsworth, home of the Duke of Devonshire, installed two boilers in 2013 to heat its 300 rooms as well as its garden, stables, shops and restaurants. Figures provided by their installers say they are making an annual income of £69,758 the RHI – that’s £1,395,160 over 20 years as of today, although this will increase with inflation.
Based on their ratings, the two boilers at Lord Coke’s Holkham Hall estate are expected to bring in £63,221.79 a year – a figure that will rise with inflation and generate the equivalent of £1,264,435 over 20 years of RHI payments .
There is no indication that any of the individuals who benefited from the grant broke any law or rule.
However, Mark Sommerfeld, head of energy and flexibility at the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), defended the RHI, saying it remains “a highly regulated system with strict rules to ensure the appropriate use of renewable heating systems and a carefully designed one Tariff mechanism that actively reduces the amount of support new applicants receive as system costs decrease. It has also been regularly reviewed over the life of the program to ensure the sites represent value for money for the taxpayer.”
A spokesman for campaign group Biofuelwatch said: “RHI was a poorly designed subsidy scheme that failed to prioritize real climate action in the heat sector and contributed significantly to air pollution at the expense of public health. It has left the UK with one of Europe’s worst heat pump records, one of the key ways to decarbonize the heat sector. And far from incentivizing energy efficiency and energy conservation, the RHI has rewarded recipients’ wasteful and wasteful energy use.”
Trevelyan said: “My ex-husband started Netherwitton Heating Company, of which I was a director until our divorce in 2019. This was a community biomass system designed to power around 20 properties and our family home with clean energy from locally sourced wood. It offered all of these families the opportunity to move away from oil or coal-fired heating systems and significantly reduce their costs.”
Clifton-Brown said: “I chaired an Audit Committee meeting on Wednesday 21 March 2018 in the absence – for family reasons of the Chairman-elect. I did not get the report through the committee conducted by the Chairman-elect. The family farm of which I am a member is fully registered in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In 2015, the partnership successfully applied for an RHI subsidy for a property converted for holiday rentals for the installation of a green pellet boiler.
“I was not involved in the grant application and did not derive any personal benefit from this cauldron. The partnership has received grants but these have been dwarfed by operational and capital costs, but they are committed to doing whatever it takes to reduce carbon emissions.”
A government spokesman said: “These claims are a gross exaggeration. The UK renewable heat incentive has strict cost controls, budget caps and other mechanisms in place to prevent overspending and tackle potential gambling.”
Coke, Philip Dunne and the Duke of Devonshire have all been asked to comment.