West Park Fitness in Tallaght is one of the few businesses in Ireland not facing skyrocketing energy bills this winter.

"Our gas is down over 40% a year in the amount of gas consumption and electricity is down about 15% a year overall," Kevin Doyle, the firm's general manager, told Prime Time.

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.

The overhaul involved a significant capital investment for the company in renewable energy, but it was done with the help of an energy grant for businesses from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), called the Excellence in Energy Efficient Design (EXEED).

As a result, Mr Doyle said he’s become an evangelist for energy grant schemes for business.

"Why would you not do this if there's money sitting there and there's a two to five-year payback on a piece of kit that will be installed for the next 20 or 30 years?"

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.

West Park Fitness in Tallaght has completed a redesign of its energy system

A new report from the Climate Change Advisory Council said there was an "implementation gap" between our targets to tackle climate change and what we are doing to reach them.

The rate at which energy efficiency grants are being accessed by firms is a stark example of this.

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 carried out a survey of 143 of our members, which represent 70% of industrial emissions. The key finding, really is that there's commitment there to support net zero. They're looking at fuel switching options. But the support schemes at the moment are not attractive enough for businesses to engage in that way."

For EXEED, there are problems with eligibility criteria. For instance, there are as many as 70 listed design requirements to meet the standard for the grant.

In addition, only companies that have annual energy consumption of at least 100,00kWh are accepted.

The fitness centre invested in renewable energy systems

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.

Only 17 companies have been "EXEED certified" as conforming to requirements of the scheme since 2017. Some 14 are large companies and only 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.

But he said it was really aimed at "large energy users that are working with large energy bills, because they get the huge return on their investment".

Yet many small and medium businesses that do not have the funds to improve their energy systems without grants are applying to EXEED.

Doyle’s Produce, in Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny, a potato and vegetable supplier to Aldi and other local supermarkets, is one such company.

In May, Eddie Doyle, its owner, got an energy audit done under EXEED, which determined that he could see a 70% reduction in his electricity bills if he installed solar power and upgraded his equipment and machinery.

His business is not cash rich, so, while awaiting the grant, he got approval in principle for a bank loan for the redesign of his energy system.

Doyle's Produce is a potato and vegetable supplier to Aldi and other local supermarkets

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.

While the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications has promised a review of EXEED in mid-2022, Mr Pringle said this response, in the midst of a climate crisis, is not urgent enough.

"What they should be able to do is be able to respond on the hoof to actually see what's happening. It appears, immediately, there's a problem with it and the department should actually recognise that and do something about it," he said.

The other key SEAI energy efficiency grant that is failing to deliver for businesses is the Support Scheme for Renewable Heating.

This grant repays the cost of the outlays for renewable heating systems over a 15-year period, once installed and inspected by the SEAI.

Ger Crosse of Woodco Renewable Energy in Donaskeigh, Co Tipperary, is a leading supplier of biomass boilers, a carbon-free alternative to gas boilers and oil.

He has installed 30 boilers under the scheme since mid-2019. However, of the 62 boilers approved under the scheme to date across the country, only eight companies have actually begun receiving grant payments.

Eddie Doyle got an energy audit done under EXEED

Woodco have several customers in the agri-food sector who installed boilers in 2019, and are still waiting to begin payments.

"The pig and poultry guys. There's about a dozen of them who are early adopters, put in their boilers and are still waiting, and I think they've been let down badly. Other sectors, care homes and horticulture have been fine and they received their payments."

Mr Mealy acknowledged that there have been delays in getting inspectors out to inspect the boilers before payments could being, often relating to assembling the correct paperwork and also due to Covid-19.

When asked if inspections could happen quicker, Mr Mealy said it could be streamlined.

"There can always be improvements in terms of looking at our timelines and all that, and that's what we constantly do," he said.

The SEAI points to high payouts in its Better Energy Scheme for small businesses linking up with community energy efficiency schemes. 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.

The SEAI also told Prime Time that its main focus is on approximately 200 large companies, such as Diageo, which account for 18% of all energy use in Ireland today.

Woodco Renewable Energy, a provider of biomass boilers, have several customers who are still waiting to receive grant payments

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. We want to make sure that it has been robustly checked and making sure that it's been given out properly," he said.

But the urgency of reaching our climate targets leaves many feeling that the SEAI’s current caution is misplaced.

"The impact of decarbonising heating could be phenomenal. [The SEAI] just needs to take the stabilizers off now and make it happen," said Mr Crosse.

In a subsequent statement, the SEAI said these schemes are demand-led. Some 646 applications across the two schemes have been made to date. Some 573 have been provided an offer, representing an 89% offer rate. The SEAI noted that it facilitates and mentors unsuccessful applicants to reapply for the schemes.

Eddie Doyle said the Government must bridge the gap between words and action on climate.

"Are they going to back it up and do what they propose to do in getting renewables organised in this country? If the Government doesn't get a move on, then we have a problem."