“We’ve 27 million homes that need to think about retrofit and energy efficiency”

Low Carbon Homes Director at British Gas, Gail Parker, talks to Lucy Dixon about the importance of offering consumers a tailored approach to decarbonisation.

“Why heat pumps will never work in Britain” – that’s just one headline from the newspapers (in this case, The Telegraph) claiming that low-carbon solutions aren’t fit for purpose. It’s not just heat pumps in the firing line either, electric vehicles and other technologies linked to decarbonisation are similarly demonised by both the traditional media and social media commentators alike. So it’s fair to say that Gail Parker, relatively new Low Carbon Homes Director at British Gas, has a challenging task on her hands. “The purpose of my role is to help more and more consumers and customers decarbonise their homes,” she explains, and a big part of this is getting a steer on what the public actually thinks (and understands) through the British Gas Net Zero Index.

Despite the somewhat gloomy headlines, there is a growing positivity towards the suite of products Gail looks after – heat pumps, solar, battery storage – partly because of high energy prices, but also, Gail says, the research shows there is growing climate anxiety and a desire for people to play their part in reducing emissions.  There is also a fair amount of confusion about what can be done, Gail says. “We’ve 27 million homes that need to think about retrofit and energy efficiency. And so whilst there’s different motivations for households, the barriers are very similar, so we’re working on addressing some of those.”

Gail’s role also incorporates the Home Health Check, which aims to simplify the potentially complex issue of energy efficiency and offer practical solutions. She explains: “We’re constantly evolving and developing the Home Health Check, which is critical to address the confusion for households, on what to do and in what order. Fundamentally, every home is unique with a unique set of people living there in different circumstances, with different ages and uses of the home.”

This variation means that the Home Health Check isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, it is a flexible product that can give out tailored advice. Gail adds: “What we’ve found when we go into those customers’ homes who want to take that service up is that, by having someone who’s an expert that will look at the home holistically – without giving preference to one technology over another – and not prioritise big investment over small steps is really critical.”

Fine-tuning the offering

There is already a lot of interest from customers, although British Gas hasn’t promoted this service heavily yet, Gail says, as they have been fine-tuning it and investing in its development, as well as expanding its team of experts, ensuring customers get good outcomes for any measures they choose to spend money on. Confidence in these services is so important for the take-up, so this focus on quality is crucial, says Gail. “Customers get a personalised report that gives an in-depth view of their home and the steps they could take. And if they choose to go down one of those routes then we will connect them through to the right team.” And that’s not always a heat pump or solar, sometimes that might be a boiler, or simply maximising the capabilities of the system they currently have. “Sometimes, actually, it’s really common stuff like their heating system, it’s all clogged up, so it’s inefficient. We can help get the bills down just by a power flush or a service.”

Gail describes the Home Health Check as a gateway product, it’s the way in to this topic for many people, but some British Gas customers are already on this journey. They’re not complete decarbonisation beginners. She explains: “Some may have solar already, for example, so they want to know if a heat pump should be next.”

Education is key to scale up the rollout of heat pumps, Gail acknowledges, and says the industry shouldn’t shy away from it. “The consumer view is I don’t really know who to ask and I’ve got five different points of view to consider. This is not about putting a box with a fan on the front of your house. That’s not what a heat pump is. It’s a system. It works differently and we need to take people on a journey with education content and by investing in propositions that really help to reassure.”

Mythbusting

Reassurance was definitely on offer by the warm home promise launched by British Gas last year, which was designed to “get to the absolute heart of the myth that heat pumps cannot heat your home in the UK,” says Gail. The warm home promise, which guarantees customers their money back if a heat pump does not warm their home as effectively as a traditional gas boiler, encourages buyers that the technology can be trusted.  Gail adds: “To give people that reassurance from an organisation which really understands heating systems, and the homes in which heat pumps can work as well as a gas boiler, that’s critical. The horror stories we hear, it’s about bad installation, bad design or put into a home that wasn’t heat pump ready.”

Most would agree that a mix of incentives and rewards is needed to boost take-up of heat pumps and other low-carbon technologies, for both landlords and homeowners. Gail says green mortgages, stamp duty rebates and other financial “rewards” that allow property owners to upgrade homes could all play a part. “It’s an investment for the future in that property, and how we articulate that. That’s the conversation we should be having – how can we help people spread some costs over time?”

Costs aside, Gail says British Gas is lobbying for other barriers to be addressed. She explains: “As an organisation we really do want to see those changes to the planning permissions [for heat pumps] coming through. We were really pushing to try and get zero VAT on the batteries for solar, because that will open up a whole world of demand side response and flexibility for the grid.”