Lobbyists for the gas boiler industry are trying to delay the introduction of new government measures to speed up the take-up of heat pumps, a leaked document shows.
The move, in a draft document obtained by the DeSmog investigative journalism group and seen by the Guardian, appears to be part of an intensive two-year lobbying effort by a key gas boiler industry organisation, which has been critical of heat pumps, and promoted hydrogen for home heating to government and opposition parties, despite strong evidence of its unsuitability.
The Energy and Utilities Alliance (EUA), an industry association that represents boiler manufacturers and other gas companies, including some that have branched out into heat pumps, has made a submission to a government consultation calling for measures forcing the industry to install more heat pumps to be delayed to 2026.
Under the consultation on the clean heat market mechanism, published in March, ministers are proposing that, from 2024, manufacturers of fossil fuel boilers would face a quota for heat pump installations relative to their gas or oil boiler installations, with fines for failure to sell enough heat pumps.
But in the draft, obtained by DeSmog and seen by the Guardian, the government targets are said by EUA to be “unachievable” because of the short timeframe, the difficulty manufacturers would face in gearing up to meet the regulations, and the potential cost of the fines, which the organisation has calculated at a potential £300m to UK industry.
EUA wrote, in a document titled HHIC Clean Heat Market Mechanism Consultation Response: “EUA does not believe that the proposed clean heat market mechanism will achieve its stated aims with the policy as currently designed. The central proposal that boiler manufacturers are able to dictate the products homeowners install in their homes is flawed.”
HHIC stands for Heating and Hot Water Industry Council, a trade body whose aim is to “define practical solutions for decarbonising heat and hot water in UK homes and businesses”, to which EUA is a parent organisation.
Mike Foster, chief executive of EUA, confirmed to the Guardian that EUA was seeking a delay to the introduction of the clean heat market mechanism to 2026. He told the Guardian that 2026 was a “sensible timeframe” because the government’s current proposals would hit gas boiler companies with fines for failing to install enough heat pumps, without putting in place the mechanisms necessary to allow them to sell more.
Only about 30,000 heat pump installations are likely to qualify for grants under the government’s upgrade scheme, but if boiler companies fail to install about 60,000 in private homes, they will be penalised. The limit on grants would act as a “ceiling” on the number of heat pump installations in private homes, Foster said, making fines on the gas boiler industry almost inevitable. “Why would you retrofit without a grant when there are grants available?” he asked. “Who would want to fit one without accessing a grant?”
The EUA, with the help of a Birmingham PR firm, the WPR Agency, has also undertaken a campaign in the media that highlights some of the potential difficulties with installing heat pumps, evidence amassed by DeSmog suggests.
EUA members are strongly identified with the gas boiler industry, with members including Cadent, which runs the UK’s largest gas network, and many leading boiler manufacturers, including Baxi, Vaillant and Wolseley. EUA members carry out about 98% of the UK’s heating installations, the vast majority of which are for gas boilers.
Gas boiler makers and installers are facing an effective end to their industry, as it is currently constituted, if the UK moves to heat pumps as the main source of low-carbon home heating. They could turn to manufacturing and installing heat pumps, and some of the EUA’s member companies, including Baxi, Vaillant and Wolseley, have done so, but these are a tiny part of their current market. Many companies also are working to repurpose their boilers to use hydrogen.
This is viewed by experts as problematic, because more than 40 studies have found hydrogen to be unsuitable for home heating, as it is expensive, there are issues with its efficiency, and using it in the UK’s leaky gas networks presents potential safety problems. Many current sources of hydrogen are also high-carbon.
Foster, a former Labour MP, has taken to the media to promote hydrogen for home heating, and criticise heat pumps. He has written articles for or been quoted in newspapers including the Sun, the Telegraph and the Express, and broadcast media such as GB News, LBC and BBC news.
He wrote in the Times against the clean heat market mechanism: “If there is the demand for heat pumps then manufacturers will sell them anyway. But if the public don’t want them, are you really helping by forcing companies to try and sell them? This feels like Soviet-style planning where you end up with warehouses full of Ladas that nobody wants.”
On the Politics.co.uk website, he wrote last year, about data on the cost of heat pumps: “These numbers make it crystal clear that the way to decarbonise homes currently using natural gas boilers is to switch to a net zero gas, not rip out the boiler. It is economically irrational to fit heat pumps, so converting the gas networks to hydrogen is the only sensible approach.”
Foster told the Guardian he was not against heat pumps. He said EUA had not lobbied the government against a ban on gas boilers, and said that in a personal capacity as chair of a fuel-poverty community-interest company he had approved projects to fund more than 11,500 heat pump installations.
He said: “EUA is not and has never been anti heat pump. The only people suggesting this are those who know very little about decarbonising home heating or have some alternative agenda. EUA members make and sell heat pumps. EUA believes a wide range of technologies is needed to meet net zero – including heat pumps, heat networks and hydrogen. EUA does also highlight the many misleading claims around heat pumps and those promoting ‘a one-size fits all’ to the complex issue of decarbonising homes.”
On hydrogen, he said that heat pumps were not suitable for all homes, and hydrogen offered a potential alternative. “EUA’s stance, to explore hydrogen for heating, is in line with that of the government,” he said. “The CCC [Committee on Climate Change] also identify a role for hydrogen, as does the Scottish government and the National Grid, in their future energy scenarios. Our view is also shared by some of the UK’s biggest trade unions – GMB, Unite, Community, Unison and Prospect. Advocates of ruling out hydrogen as an eco-friendly energy source at this early stage are not serious about net zero, whereas we are.”
However, Grant Shapps, the energy secretary, recently appeared to cool on hydrogen for home heating. In a significant shift of stance, he told Politico earlier this month that although hydrogen could be used for heavy industry, it was unlikely to be used for homes. He said: “I came in [to office] thinking, because this was the narrative that was around, that one day hydrogen will fuel homes. I think that’s unlikely to be the way forward.”
In April, around the time when EUA was drafting its plea to government to delay measures that would promote heat pumps, WPR, the agency retained by EUA, sent a press notice to journalists detailing opposition by the EUA to the government plans for a clean heart market mechanism, describing “some news of outrage from the heating and energy industry over policy that organisations believe is ‘selling British manufacturers down the river’.”
WPR until recently boasted on its website of campaigning to “spark outrage at the cost and demand consumer choice over the heating technologies people put in their own homes. We demonstrated that, while consumers support climate change efforts, the government needs to take seriously concerns around choice and affordability.”
That wording has in recent days been changed to “spark conversation”. A spokesperson told the Guardian: “We changed the wording to better reflect the work we are doing for the EUA – that the country does not have to make a binary choice between heat pumps and hydrogen, we will need both to become net zero.”
The spokesperson added that the agency was not against heat pumps: “We work for manufacturers of heat pumps and are aware that they are a fantastic solution in the right properties. However, as manufacturers of heat pumps themselves admit, they aren’t suitable for every home or every property. As with bodies such as the Climate Change Committee, and individuals such as the Minister for Energy Efficiency and Green Finance, we believe we will need both heat pumps and hydrogen if we are to become net zero, which we must.”
Sarah Becker, of the Global Witness campaign group, said the promotion of hydrogen for home heating was based on manufacturers and installers seeking the least disruption to their business model. “The people who are pushing for hydrogen heating aren’t genuinely interested in tackling climate breakdown – they’re looking for a lifeline for the gas industry,” she said. “They aren’t just talking up a false climate solution, they’re also working hard to undermine the right ones. Heat pumps will play an essential role in reducing our fossil fuel dependence and making our homes and buildings renewables-ready.”
Creating confusion in the minds of consumers has a serious impact on the uptake of heat pumps, according to Prof Martin Freer, director of the Birmingham Energy Institute. “The homeowner [in the UK] is confused by the mixed messages from government, industry and the [installation] sector around which low-carbon heating solution is best. This same confusion does not exist in countries such as Italy, Poland, France, Germany or the Netherlands.”
Foster said: “I don’t know how anyone could accuse me of sowing confusion, as I am clear that three [technologies] will be needed: heat pumps, distributed heat networks, and hydrogen for home heating. That is what the government has said. Why would the government be spending time investing in hydrogen otherwise?”
Foster added that he believed many critics of the EUA were lobbyists at the Regulatory Assistance Project, paid to undermine the UK’s gas industry.
Jan Rosenow, of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a thinktank that has drawn attention to the more than 40 studies finding hydrogen would not be viable for home heating, said: “It is quite ironic that lobbyists paid by the fossil fuel industry accuse me of being a lobbyist. I have never taken any money from the heat pump industry or lobbied on behalf of any other industry. I’m an analyst with one agenda only: to decarbonise the energy system affordably and fairly to address the climate crisis. I never have and never will represent any special interests in my work.”
The Labour party press office did not respond to the Guardian’s queries.