Bulb chief used government advisory role to ‘brief against’ rivals

·5 min read

Collapsed energy supplier Bulb Energy appears to have used its role advising ministers on green business to exaggerate its own environmental credentials, while playing down rivals’ progress.

Related: ‘Too good to be true’: the rapid rise and costly fall of Bulb Energy

Bulb’s chief executive, Hayden Wood, used a meeting of the Council for Sustainable Business (CSB), attended by key government officials and MPs, to highlight its green progress ahead of the Cop26 climate talks and boast about £4.5m it has donated to organisations fighting climate change.

Bulb this week became the biggest energy supplier casualty of the gas price spike, when it was taken over by the British government via a so-called “special administration”. That means the effective nationalisation of the company, which has 1.7m customers, and could cost the taxpayer more than £1.7bn over the winter, as the government underwrites its power purchases.

Wood, 38, who co-founded Bulb in 2015, is still running the company during the administration on a salary believed to be £113,000 – something that has stoked further controversy given that he was the architect of Bulb’s meteoric but heavily loss-making growth.

The briefing paper, seen by the Guardian and dated January 2021, has infuriated rival energy companies which claim that Bulb Energy was effectively able to use its privileged role at the CSB to gain special access to ministers and “brief against” its rivals. The CSB is made up of senior business figures and led by Severn Trent’s boss, Liv Garfield. It reports to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

It is understood that Bulb, which played a key role in a number of government-led business initiatives and hosted Boris Johnson at its headquarters in July, presented directly via video link to a number of key policymakers within the government’s environment department, including Zac Goldsmith, Rebecca Pow and George Eustice.

Related: The Guardian view on the energy crisis: a Bulb goes out | Editorial

Other energy companies were invited to give their views on progress towards the UK’s climate goals to the CSB at a later date, in a process moderated by the industry trade body Energy UK.

Bulb briefed the MPs on the plans of nine of its rivals, including Scottish Power and Octopus Energy – but failed to mention their multibillion-pound investments in renewable energy projects vital to meeting the UK’s net zero projects and appeared to criticise the absence of net zero targets.

One senior energy industry source, who asked not to be named, said: “It’s a bit rich for a company which presented itself as a ‘disruptor’, acting for the benefit of their customers, to be taking shots at rivals which invest billions in clean energy while it spends its money on expanding overseas and leaving UK taxpayers in the lurch when the gamble doesn’t pay off.”

Bulb has been accused of greenwashing because it does not invest directly in renewable energy projects such as wind turbines, and relies on controversial green energy certificates and carbon offsetting to market its energy as clean.

The source added: “It’s not the case that you need to be a big supplier to invest in the renewable energy projects which supply your customers. Good Energy has been a great example of a small company which plays its part. But Bulb has not spent a penny on building new renewable energy capacity so why has the government handed it a platform to run down the companies which do?”

Bulb Energy said the company was asked to present information about initiatives “to encourage more businesses to set net zero targets in the energy and technology sectors”. “The information in the presentation looked specifically at companies’ net zero strategies, based on information publicly available on their websites at the time,” said the statement.

Related: Bulb Energy: key questions answered for customers after collapse

The company added: “Hayden plans to stay on through the special administration period. We don’t publish his salary, but in our last published accounts [for parent company Simple Energy] the two highest-paid directors each were paid £113,000.”

Bulb used the briefing paper to issue Scottish Power, one of the UK’s biggest renewable energy investors, a red mark against its name for not setting a target to reach net zero and said it had “published blogposts sharing their intention to increase ambition by 2030” and “eventually set milestones for 2040 and 2045”.

A spokesman for Scottish Powersaid the company “is proud to invest £6m every day in the UK’s green energy infrastructure to help the government meet its goal to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050”.

Bulb issued another red mark against Octopus Energy, which has developed bespoke software to make using renewable energy easier for consumers, because it had not yet set a net zero target. Bulb appeared to criticise Octopus for publishing a “blogpost about ‘meaningful ways’ it’s ‘supporting a green future’”.

Greg Jackson, the chief executive of Octopus, said: “We’re pushing system-wide change to end all reliance on fossil fuels in energy through investment in heat pumps, electric vehicles, green hydrogen and smart tariffs.” The company also generates 2.8GW of renewable energy across Europe via Octopus Renewables which was set up in March this year.

A Defra statement said the CSB’s role was “to advise government on how businesses can help achieve the 25-year environment plan goals and be mobilised to take further action in a positive and immediate way”.

“This involves collaborating with fellow business leaders and scrutinising and comparing their own plans, to ensure that UK business are on the way to achieving net zero by 2050 or earlier,” the department said.

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