'Free Power Saturdays' are being considered by British Gas

In hopes of easing the criticism over the company's rising profits, British Gas is looking to introduce free Saturdays early next year

British Gas is considering the introduction of "Free Power Saturdays" to try to counter widespread anger over surging energy bills and utility company profits.

Centrica, which owns British Gas, on Wednesday reported a 9% increase in group profits, after gas consumption jumped 13% following last winter's record-breaking cold spell. It also refused to rule out a future price increase.

Under Free Power Saturdays, pioneered by British Gas's North American business, customers would be encouraged to use energy-hungry electrical devices such as washing machines and tumble dryers at the weekend. The idea is to raise household usage at a time when industrial and commercial power demand slumps.

Other tariff ideas under consideration include pricing gas on Saturdays and Sundays at half the level of weekdays. But any shift to day-by-day pricing would require households to have smart meters fitted. British Gas has already installed more than one million of the devices.

Centrica's chief executive, Sam Laidlaw, told the Financial Times that free Saturdays could be introduced early next year, in a move the company hopes could ease the heavy criticism it has faced from consumers and politicians over its rising profits.

Last year the prime minister pledged to force power companies to give every customer the cheapest possible deal rather than put them on to standard tariffs, but it later emerged that this could lead to one in five customers actually paying more.

Laidlaw said cheaper weekend tariffs would benefit the environment: "In addition to being good for customers, they [free power days] are good for carbon reduction by reducing peak power generation that is disproportionately higher in carbon dioxide emissions."

Earlier, Centrica's chief financial officer, Nick Luff, had refused to rule out a further price rise, as he warned that British Gas is under pressure from the cost of government energy-saving schemes and volatile prices on the wholesale gas market.

"What I can do is assure you that we will keep our prices as low as we can," he said. "It is in our interests to have competitive prices – we want to attract new customers – and if prices do have to go up we will delay that for as long as possible."

Centrica, which raised prices by 6% last November, reported a 9% increase in profits to £1.58bn for the first six months of the year. for its entire business spanning power generation and supply. He added that while group profits were up 9% to £1.58bn, profits in the residential arm of British Gas rose only 3% to £356m from £345m.

British Gas prompted widespread criticism with last year's price increase, which added £80 a year to the average dual-fuel customer's bill. The company, which serves 10m households, promised in May it would use its profits to keep prices down, but has refused to put a date on the duration of this price pledge.

Consumer groups urged British Gas to freeze energy bills for the rest of the year.

Tom Lyon, at uSwitch.com, said: "The fact that British Gas has absorbed increasing costs so far this year will be of cold comfort to consumers who may be fearing the worst – especially with rumours of price rises. Profits are up from last year, so we would urge British Gas to help quell customers' fears and commit to a price freeze for the rest of the year."

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