The energy watchdog has launched an investigation into revelations that at least ten Scottish farmers failed to get planning permission for ‘green’ boiler systems for which they could receive tens of thousands of pounds in government grants.
Some of the unregulated boilers being probed by Ofgem have prompted complaints from neighbours after they belched clouds of thick smoke.
The National Farmers’ Union Scotland (NFUS) believes there could be many more similar cases and has urged members to comply with planning law.
Biomass boilers burn wood, straw and other material and are meant to cut carbon emissions and fossil fuel use. Ofgem administers Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) payments to boiler owners, many of them farmers and country estate owners.
But after complaints to Aberdeenshire Council about boilers built unlawfully on six farms, NFUS warned members: “There appear to be many on-farm biomass boilers which have been installed without adequate associated approval or planning permission.”
The owners of the Aberdeenshire boilers have been forced to apply for retrospective planning permission and some have already been refused, meaning they may have to rip out expensive installations.
Since the NFUS warning there have been at least four more retrospective applications for biomass boilers that have already been fitted on Aberdeenshire farms.
A freedom of information request to Ofgem to find if the boilers built without permission had received RHI grants was refused. But Ofgem then asked The Ferret for details of the cases to pass to its counter-fraud and audit teams.
“We take compliance with regulations for the scheme very seriously and we will look into these cases carefully before deciding if any action needs to be taken,” said an Ofgem spokesman.
“There is no requirement in the RHI regulations for an applicant to demonstrate evidence of planning permission for their boiler. However, if someone does not have the necessary permissions and a planning authority takes enforcement action which means that they need to cease running the boiler, the individual would no longer be eligible for the RHI.”
He added that the government is to change RHI rules to make planning permission a condition of payment.
Under the current RHI regime for new installations, experts say 100 kilowatt boilers could attract grants of £9,000 with additional subsidies at a lower rate for higher outputs. Farmers’ boilers can exceed 500 kilowatts.
Nearly all of the boiler installations in question are around Turiff in Aberdeenshire.
An application by farmer Neil Benzie for two boilers at Meikle Whiterashes near Turriff was refused after neighbour Julie Fraser complained. “They have been going for four weeks nearly now,” she said.
“It’s like there is a bonfire right outside my house 24/7…My asthma has now got affected by it. I can’t open windows or put washing out or walk my dogs most days. What makes it worse is that they are getting grants for these things…everyone within a half-mile radius is suffering.”
An application for two boilers installed at a farm at Craigshowdie, Ardallie, by George Whitelock was refused after neighbour Lorna Dawson said smoke stopped her opening windows and hanging out washing.
Neighbour Peter Stewart Duff complained to the council about farmer Allan Moore’s eight unregulated boilers at Whiteside Farm, Lonmay, the first of which was installed four years ago.
“In the last two years there have been many times when we have had to close windows to avoid the smoke and fumes,” Duff said. Moore’s boilers have since been given planning permission.
The warning note from the NFUS said boilers pumping out more than 45 kilowatts in heat or 50 kilowatts in electricity – a small farm scheme – needed planning consent. Even some smaller boilers may need consent if they have chimneys higher than 12 metres.
The note added: “Where boilers have already been installed without prior approval or consent, consideration should be given to whether retrospective permission should be sought, to prevent potential enforcement action.”
A number of members could have unwittingly and accidentally fallen foul of planning permission requirements when installing biomass boilers. Gemma Cooper, National Farmers' Union Scotland
NFUS policy manager Gemma Cooper said: “NFUS understands a number of members could have unwittingly and accidentally fallen foul of planning permission requirements when installing biomass boilers.
“In some instances, installers have led some members to believe that planning permission was not required, when in some cases it should have been obtained. We would remind members who are considering installing such boilers, to ensure that they have the necessary consents before commencing these projects.”
NFUS said it expects to hear of other failures to obtain planning permission from outwith Aberdeenshire.
“There is nothing malicious about it…they have probably just not known that planning permission was needed or were badly advised by the boiler supplier,” Cooper added.
“I am assuming they are claiming renewable heating incentive money on the boilers. They have invested a lot of money in these systems.”
Aberdeenshire Council said after planning enforcement and environmental health staff received complaints about smoke from biomass boilers, investigators found a string of installations on farm premises. It then contacted the NFUS to get a warning out.
The council’s head of planning and building standards, Robert Gray, said: “Clearly there has been an issue here relating to understanding of planning requirements, but we are pleased to have been able to work with the National Farmers’ Union Scotland to help and better inform farmers of what’s required.”
A number of the unregulated boilers appear to have been supplied by Lincolnshire firm Glen Farrow. The firm said that it always advises farmers to check with planners before installation.
Farmers Benzie and Whitelock did not respond to requests to comment, and repeated calls to Moore went unanswered.