Gas companies are misleading the British public by marketing “hydrogen ready” boilers as a climate-friendly alternative despite widespread doubts the technology will help curb emissions, according to a new report.
Analysis published today by Global Witness finds that brands including British Gas and Worcester Bosch are portraying “hydrogen blend” boilers as a green way to heat homes. At recent trade fairs, some firms have also had “100 percent hydrogen boilers” on display.
But critics say the marketing for such boilers is “deceptive” and question whether hydrogen boilers can help the UK meet its net zero targets given the enormous cost – and capacity – constraints of using hydrogen for heating.
“Heating homes with hydrogen is like making dog food out of caviar: nobody would be able to afford it, and there’s nowhere near enough of it to make it work,” said Barnaby Pace, senior gas campaigner at Global Witness, who worked on the report.
Campaigners say that it would be far cheaper, faster and more efficient for Britain to decarbonise homes by using electricity generated by solar farms or wind turbines to power heat pumps.
But the gas industry would stand to lose billions of dollars in stranded assets if the UK and other countries no longer needed its pipelines, city-wide grids and other infrastructure to pipe natural gas to heat millions of homes.
“There are good, clean, options out there to heat homes such as heat pumps, but they are threatening the business model of gas suppliers,” Pace said. “So, we’re seeing a campaign from a dirty industry, desperate to keep burning gas, make customers pay for their hydrogen pipe dreams and keep profiting off energy bills.”
Meanwhile, gas companies openly admit that hydrogen – whether “blended” with fossil gas or used pure – will not be widely available for at least a decade. British Gas writes on its website that a boiler bought today would probably only ever use natural gas.
Hydrogen, which can be burned to generate heat, like natural gas, is already used in some industries.
Gas companies have been lobbying the government to grant a significant role to hydrogen during the transition away from fossil fuels. They argue that adapting the existing network to run on a blend of natural gas and hydrogen – or building new hydrogen-powered grids – will help meet climate goals.
Now, Worcester Bosch and German company Vaillant, which operates in the UK, are marketing 100 percent hydrogen boilers at recent trade shows, according to photos seen by DeSmog.
Worcester Bosch has also advertised units with a large green label that reads “hydrogen blend ready”.
But these boilers would still mostly run on natural gas – even if hydrogen was available. If and when hydrogen were to be injected into existing gas grids on any large scale, ‘blended boilers’ would only run on 20 percent hydrogen, leaving them reliant on natural gas to provide 80 percent of the power to heat homes.
British Gas, a leading UK supplier which also makes boilers, calls the switch to hydrogen “good news for everyone” and tells customers that “every boiler” they sell can run with 20 percent hydrogen.
The chief executive of British Gas parent company Centrica has claimed that “hydrogen boilers will help us to reach net zero”, adding that British Gas is “already installing hydrogen ready boilers”.
Yet the company’s website admits that “nobody really knows” when the transition to hydrogen will happen.
British Gas predicts “the rollout of 20 percent hydrogen isn’t expected to begin until 2028 at the very earliest” while “the switch to 100 percent hydrogen will take significantly longer”.
Vaillant sets the start date even later. It concedes on its website that: “we do not expect to see a mass roll out of hydrogen boilers until the early 2030s as it is unlikely that homes, which are currently on the gas grid, will have a hydrogen supply to their doorstep much before then”.
The company adds: “For some installations there will be no tangible benefit of their wall-hung boiler being hydrogen ready as they may never see hydrogen in their lifetime.”
Dr Richard Lowes, a senior associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project, which works on the clean energy transition, told DeSmog that calling boilers “hydrogen blend ready” was deceptive.
He said gas boilers sold in Europe are already required to be compatible with 20 percent hydrogen following an EU directive which came into effect in 1996, so that “adding a new ‘hydrogen blend ready’ sticker to boilers already on the market demonstrates nothing additional and will at best confuse and at worst deceive consumers”.
Meanwhile, adopting hydrogen heating could also double energy costs for the average European household, according to analysis by consultancy Element Energy, commissioned by Global Witness and published last week.
“Hydrogen for heating is a fossil fuel Trojan Horse which could keep consumer bills high, while potentially doing little to reduce carbon emissions”, said Juliet Phillips, a senior policy advisor at think tank E3G.
This week’s Global Witness report cites meeting minutes that suggest European gas companies – ONTRAS, Bayernets, Gascade and trade body Open Grid Europe – lobbied the EU Commission in September last year suggesting the cost of converting the gas grid to hydrogen should be passed onto consumers.
Other gas companies – Fluxys, Uniper, and Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE) – lobbied EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson to the same effect in February this year, Global Witness said.
The report also suggests company marketing downplays concerns about hydrogen boilers emitting nitrogen oxide, which can be dangerous if inhaled in large quantities, when companies claim hydrogen’s only by-product is water.
“Even as gas bills have gone through the roof, gas and boiler companies are trying to persuade the public and governments to buy into ‘hydrogen-ready’ boilers, when they will likely only ever run on expensive, polluting gas and if hydrogen did ever make it into gas grids it would only ramp prices up higher,” said Barnaby Pace.
The government’s 2021 hydrogen strategy aims for hydrogen to cover up to 35 percent of the UK’s energy consumption by 2050. It has taken a “twin track” approach of backing both green hydrogen, which is made using wind and solar power, and blue hydrogen, which is made using natural gas combined with highly disputed carbon capture and storage technology.
Gas companies are actively lobbying the UK government. The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hydrogen, which has supported the government’s “twin track” approach, received around £70,000 in February from companies including Shell and Equinor through a PR company called Connect, according to the most recent register.
A spokesperson for British Gas’s parent company, Centrica, rejected the claim of “greenwashing”. They told DeSmog “the boilers we sell today can take a 20 per cent blend of hydrogen and it is unknown when hydrogen will be used whilst in grid trial stages,” adding that “all of our marketing is very clear on this”.
Worcester Bosch, Vailant, Baxi and Veissmann – the other companies whose marketing was criticised by Global Witness – did not respond when contacted for comment. Nor did the companies accused of lobbying the EU Commission – ONTRAS Bayernets, Gascade, Open Grid Europe, Fluxys, Uniper or Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE).