Tallaght’s West Park Fitness is one business that has not been hit by skyrocketing energy prices this winter.
Prime Time was told by Kevin Doyle, the general manger of the firm, that the firm’s gas consumption has fallen over 40% per year and that electricity consumption has dropped about 15% per year.
Last year, the fitness centre completed a redesign of its energy system, something that has led to a saving of €60,000 on their annual energy bills.
Although the company had to make a large capital investment in renewable energy, the overhaul was made possible by a grant from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), the Excellence in Energy Efficient Design Grant (EXEED).
As a result, Mr Doyle said he’s become an evangelist for energy grant schemes for business.
“Why would you not do it if there’s money and a two- to five year payback on a piece that will be installed over the next 20 or 30 decades?”
But while it appears to be a no-brainer to Mr Doyle, the scheme is not working for the vast majority of Ireland’s roughly 250,000 other small and medium-sized businesses.
A new report by the Climate Change Advisory Council stated that there is an “implementation lag” between our targets for tackling climate change and what are we doing to achieve them.
This is evident by the rapidity with which firms access energy efficiency grants.
New figures released to Prime Time by the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications (DECC) show that the two main energy efficiency grants for businesses – EXEED and the Support Scheme for Renewable Heating (SSRH) – are not being widely accessed, despite our climate crisis and emissions reduction targets.
Since 2017, the EXEED scheme has had a total budget of €28m. But just 37%, or €10.5m, of this money was paid out in grant aid.
More starkly, since 2018, just €350,000, or 2%, has been paid out under the SSRH scheme, which had a budget of €19.3m.
“For smaller and medium-sized companies, the administrative burden and the paperwork involved can be quite onerous,” said Conor Minogue, Ibec’s energy and climate spokesperson.
“So we did a survey on 143 of our members. They represent 70% of industrial emission. The key finding is that net zero has been supported by many people. They are exploring fuel switching options. However, the support programs at the moment aren’t attractive enough to encourage businesses to participate in this way.
Eligibility criteria are a problem for EXEED. There are 70 design requirements that must be met to qualify for the grant.
Additionally, only companies with an annual energy consumption of at minimum 100,00kWh will be accepted.
But industry sources indicate that this is above the higher level of what almost all small (40,000–55,000kWh) and most medium (70,000–90,000kWh) enterprises would be consuming.
Since 2017, only 17 companies have been “EXEED-certified” as meeting the requirements of this scheme. 14 of these are large companies, and three were SMEs.
Declan Mealy, the SEAI’s business, public sector and transport director, said that EXEED, as a process, could help any company understand its energy use.
He said that it was aimed at large energy users who have large energy bills because they get a huge return on their investment.
Many small and medium-sized businesses don’t have the resources to improve their energy systems, so they apply to EXEED.
Doyle’s Produce, in Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny, a potato and vegetable supplier to Aldi and other local supermarkets, is one such company.
Eddie Doyle, the owner of the company’s energy audit, obtained it under EXEED. He found that he could save 70% on his electricity bills if his equipment was upgraded and solar power was installed.
His business is not cash-rich, so he applied in principle to a bank loan to fund the redesign of his energy system.
Donegal TD Thomas Pringle, who uncovered EXEED’s poor grant payment rate through a series of parliamentary questions, said that for the roughly 250,000 SMEs in Ireland today the schemes are unfair.
The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications had promised to review EXEED in mid-2022, but Mr Pringle said that this response, in the middle of a climate crisis, was not urgent.
“They should be able respond on the hoof to see what’s going on. It seems that there is a problem immediately and the department should be able to respond on the hoof to actually see what’s happening,” he stated.
The Support Scheme for Renewable Heating is another key SEAI grant that is not delivering for businesses.
Once installed and inspected, the SEAI will repay the grant.
Ger Crosse of Woodco Renewable Energy is a leading supplier of bio boilers. This is a carbon-free alternative for oil and gas boilers.
Since mid-2019, he has installed 30 boilers through the scheme. Only eight companies have started receiving grant payments from the 62 boilers approved so far under the scheme.
Woodco has several customers in agri-food who installed boilers in 2019, but are still waiting to start payments.
“The poultry and pork guys. A dozen of them were early adopters. They put in their boilers, but are still waiting. I think they are being let down. Other sectors like horticulture and care homes have been great and received their payments.”
Mr Mealy acknowledged the delays in getting inspectors to inspect the boilers prior to payments could be made. These delays were often due to Covid-19 and assembling the proper paperwork.
When Mr Mealy was asked if inspections could be done faster, he replied that it could.
He stated that there are always improvements to our timelines and all that.
The SEAI points out the high payouts under its Better Energy Scheme, which allows small businesses to join community energy efficiency programs. The payout under the scheme have matched the budgets allocated: out of a budget of €103m from 2016 to 2020, €97m was paid out, amounting to a 95% pay out rate.
Prime Time was also informed by the SEAI that its main focus is on 200 large companies like Diageo, which accounts for 18% of all energy consumption in Ireland today.
While only ten of these companies meet the SEAI’s Excellence in Energy Efficient Design certification, they have improved their energy performance in recent years, by 4.5% in 2019 and 7% in 2020.
Mr Mealy said there were important lessons learned from Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme, the so-called “cash for ash” controversy, and the authority’s responsibility to administer the schemes prudently.
“It’s taxpayers’ money. He stated that we want to make sure it has been thoroughly checked and that it’s been distributed properly.
But the urgency of reaching our climate targets leaves many feeling that the SEAI’s current caution is misplaced.
“The impact decarbonising heating could have a tremendous effect. [The SEAI]”All that is required is to remove the stabilizers and make it happen,” said Crosse.
The SEAI stated that these schemes are demand-driven in a subsequent statement. To date, 646 applications have been received for the two schemes. An offer has been made to 573 applicants, which is an 89% rate. The SEAI noted that it helps and mentors applicants who fail to apply for the schemes.
Eddie Doyle stated that the Government must bridge between words and actions on climate change.
“Are they going back it up? Are they going to do what they say to get renewables organized in this country?” If the Government does not get on board, then we have a problem.”