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Singapore energy firm sparks confusion with promotion for ‘green’ gas-fired heaters

City Energy is offering discounts on gas-powered heaters it says will help consumers ‘go green’. Critics say while these heaters may be more efficient than electric storage ones, marketing a fossil fuel-based product as a green solution is misleading.

An advertising for City Energy in Singapore, promoting natural gas-powered water heaters as "greener"
An advertisement for City Energy in Singapore, promoting gas-powered water heaters as a way for consumers to "go green". Image: City Energy / Instagram

A Singapore energy company has caused confusion with a promotion which claims that consumers can “go green” by buying a water heater powered by natural gas.

City Energy, which is owned by Keppel Infrastructure Trust, is running an advertising campaign in social media with mobile telephone company MobileOne (M1) that gives consumers discounts on gas water heaters if they sign up to an M1 broadband plan.

The campaign is captioned “Go green and save more with gas-powered water heaters”, and informs consumers that they will be able to heat water more sustainably and make cost savings with gas compared to electric storage water heaters, citing data from Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA).

CityEnergy advertisement

City Energy’s advertisement claims that consumers will make cost savings by using their gas-powered water heaters. Image: City Energy

Promoting natural gas as “green” is a controversial position for a brand to take at a time when scientists say the burning of fossil fuels is not compatible with a climate-safe world – even gas, which burns with less carbon emissions than other fossil fuels such as coal, but produces climate-wrecking methane during production and transport.

To label a fossil fuel as “green” is problematic, said Ong Gin Keat, director of resource recovery firm Envrcares and board chairman of non-profit Zero Waste SG. The International Energy Agency has said that the sale of new fossil fuel boilers must be banned by 2025 as one of the measures needed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

City Energy’s messaging is ambiguous as the poster does not clearly state where the ‘green’ part of the messaging is relevant – so it’s another form of greenwashing, said Ong, noting that the term “green” is being grossly over-used in marketing communications.

City Energy is “jumping on the sustainability bandwagon”, he told Eco-Business.

Gwyneth Fries, a sustainability expert working for a consulting firm, said using the term “go green” is misleading, as it suggests that using gas-powered appliances is key to a sustainable lifestyle.

She noted that the advertisement appears to be designed to mislead, because it inserts a cost savings statistic in a box coloured green - a colour associated with sustainability.

“Someone reading it quickly might assume that ‘Did you know’ is a ‘contrary to what you would believe, gas is more sustainable’ quote - especially if they notice that the source is the National Environment Agency (NEA), an authority on sustainability,” she said.

City Energy responds 

In response to queries, City Energy, which uses the slogan “Good energy for our city”, said that its gas water heaters are powered by piped-in town gas, which comprises up to 50 per cent hydrogen, therefore making town gas “cleaner” than electricity generated from purely fossil fuels.

In its replies, the firm cited a study from the National University of Singapore’s built environment faculty that is not in the public domain, which states that if all Singaporean households used electric storage water heaters and switched to gas water heaters, this would be “equivalent to planting 1.4 million trees”.

The company also pointed to an NEA-commissioned study in 2019 – cited in the advertising campaign – which estimated that Singapore households using gas water heaters can save S$1,200 (US$880) on their utilities bills compared to electric storage water heater users over a 10-year period.

Remi Cesaro, a Singapore-based energy and waste consultant, said that gas-powered water heater typically have an efficiency of 80 per cent, while electric heaters are usually close to 100 per cent efficiency. However, since almost all (95 per cent) electricity in Singapore is produced by natural gas power plants, electric heaters will indirectly generate more carbon emissions for the same amount of heat. Therefore, gas-powered heaters are less carbon intensive than electric heaters in Singapore.

However, gas-powered heaters are not necessarily greener when considering all the other externalities of gas production, he said.

A less carbon-intensive alternative to gas water heaters would be electric heat pump water heaters, suggested Cesaro. Such systems pull heat from the surrounding air and transfer it, at a higher temperature, to heat water in a storage tank, and with a much higher efficiency.

Previous media reports quoting local distributors say that about 100,000 water heaters are sold in Singapore every year, and the most common are electric and gas heaters. Sales of heat pump water heaters for home use are negligible, as the units typically reach a height of about 1.7 metres and are mostly used in expensive, landed properties. 

This is not the first time a power company has marketed gas as “green” in Singapore. In 2021, SingGas, another gas provider in Singapore, was called out for promoting liquified natural gas cooking fuel as “environmentally friendly”. The ad featured a family dinner scene captioned: “A healthier meal with a healthier gas for you and loved ones.” 

City Energy’s campaign emerges a month after the state of Victoria in Australia announced a ban on gas connections being installed in new homes and government buildings, citing climate concerns.

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