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Pumping hot: inside Britain’s first heat pump village

How did a rural Cambridgeshire village switch en masse to renewable energy? Thanks to one fateful pizza night, 100 huge boreholes and heroic navigation of the planning system, they have trailblazed their own zero-carbon heat network

How did a rural Cambridgeshire village switch en masse to renewable energy? Thanks to one fateful pizza night, 100 huge boreholes and heroic navigation of the planning system, they have trailblazed their own zero-carbon heat network

That eureka moment can strike at any time. For Emma Fletcher it came as she chatted over pizza with neighbour Mike Barker. Fletcher wanted to bring a green heating network to their village of Swaffham Prior where, with no access to mains gas, locals were lumbered with oil-fired heating. Barker, it transpired, had the sustainability chops to get them started.

Five and a half years later, their electric dreams have become reality. Fletcher and Barker have turned their quiet corner of Cambridgeshire into Britain’s first ‘heat pump village’, and in the process mapped the confounding maze of planning and legal red tape for like-minded souls to follow.

“Did it feel slow and painful?” Fletcher ponders. “Yes, it did. I don’t think at any stage we thought we’d get to the next one. But nobody’s coming to help rural communities – they need to stand up and start helping themselves.

Around 1.5m UK households – usually rural – rely on oil for central heating. While homes on the gas grid are protected to some degree by capped costs, oil is expensive and prices volatile, making oil users especially vulnerable to fuel poverty.

Many will have experienced its uncanny knack for running out on the coldest days of the year, followed by the shivering wait for a delivery. It’s bad news for the environment, too, kicking out more emissions per unit of heat than gas.

Seven years ago, Fletcher was determined to avoid saddling householders with this legacy when, as chair of the local community land trust, she built eight affordable homes in Swaffham Prior. Instead of oil boilers, they were kitted out with heat pumps powered by solar PV.

Emma Fletcher on site at the village energy centre. Image: Cambridgeshire county council/Bouygues

“I wondered – what can I do for the rest of the village? How can I get us off oil?” says Fletcher. Her vision crystallised over dinner with Barker an environmental consultant, when he revealed he’d worked with a Danish firm that had tried, and failed, to bring renewable district heat networks to the UK.

The district heating concept – distributing heat from a centralised source via insulated pipes – is nothing new. Two thirds of Danish homes are connected to one.

For Fletcher and Barker, an initial feasibility study funded with a £20,000 government grant steered them towards a centralised boiler running on woodchip. But, Fletcher said: “We didn’t really want to be giving up weekends to shovel woodchip, and we didn’t want to be burning anything.”

Nobody’s coming to help rural communities – they need to stand up and start helping themselves

Instead, they looked to ground source heat pumps. With Cambridgeshire county council supplying a plot of land on the edge of the village to host their energy centre, they eventually drilled over 100 boreholes to power it.

Along the way were a bewildering array of grant and planning applications, public consultations and surveys, with Fletcher and Barker patiently tackling each hurdle, learning as they felt their way.

Digging up the village to lay the network of pipes was “total chaos”, according to Fletcher, who says the voices of naysayers shouted loudest amid the bedlam of roadworks.

But now the dust has settled, around 150 homes out of 200 in the village core have signed up to join the network, with 25 already connected. The system has been designed for up to 300 properties and can be scaled to accommodate more. There’s no joining fee, and householders pay the council – which owns the infrastructure – a metered tariff pegged below the going rate for oil. There’s an annual service charge based on a property’s square-metre footprint starting at £289, but householders no longer need to service their own boilers or cover costly repairs.

The energy centre heats water to 74C, circulating it around 4.6 miles (7.5km) of network and along spurs to connected homes. There, it enters a heat exchanger no bigger than a combi boiler, which transfers the heat energy to the existing domestic radiator and hot water system. Connecting involves only some minor pipework to install the heat exchanger and meter box.

The ground source plant, which is most efficient in winter, runs in tandem with industrial air source heat pumps, which work best in warmer weather. A computerised control system switches between the two, maximising efficiency. The whole thing is powered by a council-owned solar array, meaning it’s close to carbon neutral.

When the next project comes on stream, that’s when you know you’ve succeeded

Critics have seized on the project’s £12m cost, which averages out at £80,000 a head for the 150 signed-up homes. Cambridgeshire county council secured £3.2m in grants from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and took out a loan for the rest. But trailblazing innovation always comes at a premium, points out Bean Beanland, a director at the Heat Pump Federation.

“The first time you do anything, it’s expensive,” he says. “The important thing is to do it, learn and repeat – that way costs come down considerably.”

Government support is still out there through its Heat Networks Delivery Unit and Green Heat Network Fund and, already, other oil-dependent communities are getting in touch, keen to learn from Fletcher’s journey.

“I’m happy to be a pioneer, but I don’t want ours to be an exemplar project – that almost puts it on a pedestal, as though it can’t be replicated,” says Fletcher. “When the next one comes on stream, that’s when you know you’ve succeeded.”

Main image: Red90

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