Exclusive: Staff wrongly tell our reporter hydrogen will replace gas and that new boilers can burn it
British Gas advisers have been caught misleading customers with false promises about green energy in an investigation by openDemocracy.
‘Heating sales advisers’ for the company were recorded claiming that hydrogen fuel will be rolled out across the UK and that boilers sold now are capable of burning hydrogen instead of gas – neither of which is yet established.
One adviser also told us that hydrogen would cut energy bills, which is untrue. And they gave misleading advice about heat pumps – including falsely claiming that they are unsuitable for four-bedroom homes.
The advisers’ claims led one expert to suggest that British Gas advisers are prioritising targets for boiler sales over giving accurate information on heat pumps, which can provide a more environmentally friendly way to heat homes by running on electricity and concentrating heat from outside for use indoors.
Another expert, Richard Lowes from the University of Exeter Energy Policy Group, accused British Gas of using “cynical sales tactics” and called on the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to open an investigation into “hydrogen greenwashing” by the gas industry.
openDemocracy booked video and phone calls with three different British Gas advisers about three different properties, all of which currently have gas boilers. During each call, we said we were concerned about climate change and asked the advisers – whom British Gas says provide “expert guidance” with “enhanced accuracy” – what heating options were available.
Two advisers responded by suggesting that the government has already decided to replace gas with hydrogen, and the third said the switch could begin in six months’ time.
“We do sell gas boilers that are hydrogen-ready,” said one adviser, “so when we do make the switch to hydrogen in the future you will not have to purchase a new boiler – so you have got your future covered there.” They added: “All the country will be hydrogen eventually.”
Another said: “We are moving over from natural gas to a mixture of natural gas and hydrogen… It will be a 20% hydrogen and 80% natural gas mix is the current plan. That’s about five to seven years down the pipeline. As time goes by, we will up the mixture of hydrogen into the gas pipes.”
The third claimed that the switch to “hydrogen blending” would cut energy bills.
“It would initially be introduced as 20% hydrogen and 80% natural gas,” they said. “It should help by lowering energy bills because the cost of hydrogen itself is deemed to be a lot cheaper as compared to natural gas. Whether that happens in six months’ time or nine months’ time, whenever that happens, the boiler itself will have the technology behind it and [the customer] will feel the effects of it straight away towards [their] energy bills.”
Contrary to these claims, the government has yet to make a decision on whether to permit a 20% hydrogen blend in the gas grid.
And an analysis by climate change think tank E3G, backed by Greenpeace, found this 20% blend would likely raise gas bills by 16%, or £100 to £200 a year, because hydrogen is much more expensive than natural gas. Even if a 20% blend were approved, the analysis said, it would only reduce emissions by 7% due to the fact that hydrogen is less energy dense than methane.
Two British Gas advisers further claimed that new boilers currently on sale could be converted to run on 100% hydrogen just by replacing a valve or pipe, which would be done free of charge.
One adviser said: “With the boilers we can quote, Worcester Bosch, they are hydrogen-ready, so when hydrogen comes into play we just have to change the valve to hydrogen and then we will be good to go.”
We asked: “So I can buy a boiler from you today and it will burn gas but in future it will be able to burn 100% hydrogen?”
The adviser replied: “That’s exactly right, yes.”
Another told us: “I believe if it does go to 100% there is actually just one pipe [in the boiler] that would need to be changed.”
But Worcester Bosch said its current range of boilers cannot be converted to burn 100% hydrogen. It said “hydrogen-ready” boilers are still being trialled and are not yet on sale.
The Competition and Markets Authority has already warned that use of the term “hydrogen-ready” or “hydrogen-blend-ready” – as British Gas and other boiler installers and manufacturers do – could mislead consumers.
It said in May: “Businesses marketing boilers as ‘hydrogen-blend’ or ‘hydrogen-ready’ risk greenwashing people into thinking these products are more environmentally friendly than they really are. This is despite these boilers being technically the same and emitting the same carbon emissions as standard gas boilers, because hydrogen fuel is not currently available for home heating.”
The CMA added: “Given the uncertainty about hydrogen use at scale for home heating, it is likely that a boiler bought today or in the near future will run predominantly or entirely on natural gas for at least a significant proportion, if not all, of its lifetime, and continue to contribute to carbon emissions.”
Other false statements made by advisers during the calls included the claim that British Gas was already storing hydrogen at its Rough storage site. Rough, which is under the sea off the east coast of England, currently stores natural gas – though Centrica, which owns British Gas, has stated a “long-term ambition” that it could one day store hydrogen.
An adviser also claimed that a trial of 100% hydrogen in homes was taking place in Whitby in Cheshire. In reality, plans for the trial were abandoned in July after strong opposition from residents concerned about safety.
The gas industry now plans to begin a hydrogen trial involving 300 homes in Fife, in east central Scotland, in the second half of next year, and hopes to convince residents in Redcar, Teesside, to take part in a larger trial. The government has said it will decide “later this year” whether to approve the Redcar trial.
‘I wouldn’t recommend a heat pump’
One adviser tried to dissuade openDemocracy from choosing a heat pump, wrongly suggesting that the home was unsuitable for one.
After showing the adviser a four-bedroom detached modern home in a video call, we asked: “From what you can see, would a heat pump be suitable for my home?”
The adviser replied: “No, I would say not. Your home is quite a big property. We tend to put heat pumps in apartments, bungalows, properties with around 10 to 11 radiators. It’s going to cost you quite a lot of money to run the heat pump and it’s not going to heat your home as quickly or efficiently as a normal boiler. Personally I wouldn’t recommend a heat pump. However, you can go online and get a quote for a heat pump. I can send you the link to book it.”
Asked if the advice they were giving was official information, they said: “It’s not just my opinion. It is factual.”
The advice that the home is unsuitable for a heat pump has been contradicted by assessments from two separate independent heating experts, who said a heat pump would work well as the home has good insulation, large radiators, a hot water cylinder and a suitable space outside for the pump.
Jo Alsop of the Heating Hub, which advises households on heating systems, said it was “deeply concerning” that the adviser had ruled out a heat pump when the home’s publicly available energy performance certificate and a quick heat loss calculation showed it was suitable for one with only minor internal alterations.
“It is clear the advisers were working to meet their own boiler sales targets rather than acting in any sort of advisory capacity as their title suggests,” she said.
Another adviser did correctly point out that heat pumps are much more expensive to install than gas boilers, at about £12,000, and that a £5,000 grant was available.
Responding to our investigation, Centrica, which owns British Gas claimed that the misleading advice given to openDemocracy were “isolated” incidents.
But Richard Lowes from the University of Exeter said: “One of the most cynical sales tactics possible is to try to confuse someone trying to make an ethical decision, like choosing greener heating, into making a decision that goes against their ethical intentions. British Gas is a well-known energy brand, trusted by people all over the country, and many would take heating advice from them at face value – this situation is an abuse of that trust.
“The deceptive tactics uncovered by openDemocracy come after the CMA warned of the risks of hydrogen greenwashing back in May; they warned that enforcement may be needed and clearly it is.
“The gas industry is desperate to protect its market share from the risk that truly green heating like heat pumps and heat networks poses to it.”
He added: “Household decision-making around something as important as heating our homes during a climate and energy security crisis cannot be unduly influenced by vested interests seemingly uninterested in solving the UK’s energy problems.”
Heating homes accounts for 17% of UK carbon emissions, and the 85% of homes that currently burn gas will have to switch to an alternative source of energy to meet the UK’s legally binding net-zero target by 2050.
The gas industry is promoting hydrogen as the replacement for gas in homes despite an analysis of 32 independent studies concluding that it would be inefficient, costly and resource-intensive.
In June, then energy security secretary Grant Shapps said that hydrogen is “unlikely to be the way forward” for home heating.
While the government is not due to make a formal decision on hydrogen heating until 2026, the Climate Change Committee has urged ministers to make electric heating the default solution and “publicly narrow the potential role for hydrogen”.
Meanwhile, the government has a target of installing 600,000 electric heat pumps a year by 2028 but only 55,000 were sold in the UK last year, compared to 620,000 in France, according to a report last month.
British Gas reported a 900% increase in profits to £969m for the first half of 2023 in July. The company is the biggest installer of new boilers in the UK and employs 7,000 gas engineers servicing more than three million existing boilers. It also sells gas and electricity to eight million homes and its parent company, Centrica, produces, stores and trades in gas.
On its website, British Gas suggests that there will be a “big switch to hydrogen” but also admits that, if this happens, it “will be a gradual process that takes years”.
Sabrina Basran, director of consumer protection at the CMA, said: “Any business marketing or selling boilers as ‘hydrogen-blend’ or ‘hydrogen-ready’ should ensure they are treating shoppers fairly and complying with consumer protection law. This includes not giving a deceptive impression of the environmental benefits of their products, using accurate descriptions to be clear that boilers cannot run on hydrogen now, and ensuring they provide the information needed to make informed decisions.
She added: “We’ll be publishing new guidance to help businesses meet their legal obligations when marketing products in the green heating and insulation sector, as well as considering whether further action, such as enforcement, is necessary.”
Centrica denied that British Gas was misleading customers into buying new boilers and suggested the individual advisers were at fault. The company went on to accuse openDemocracy of asking leading questions – even though all three workers had used similar talking points, and the claims in this article were all made without prompt.
A spokesperson said: “At British Gas we are actively driving the country’s net-zero ambitions and a big part of this is our low-carbon heating options. We are one of the largest installers of heat pumps in the UK and we’re investing in solar and battery storage. In July we announced we’ll be investing £4bn over the next five years in a number of areas – including further renewable generation.
“Our training seeks to provide advisers with the right information to help customers when they are making a choice on their heating systems. We will be following up with the particular individual advisers whose comments we’ve been made aware of, to understand where any further support and training is needed.”
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