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Swaffham Prior, a British village, pioneers the transition to sustainable heating through a community-led heat pump network project.

Nestled in rural Cambridgeshire, the village of Swaffham Prior has become Britain’s first 'heat pump village', leading the way for a sustainable heating network after a successful conversion from oil-fired heating systems. This transition, catalysed by a casual conversation over a pizza dinner between neighbours Emma Fletcher and Mike Barker, took five and a half years to bring to fruition, carving a path through a labyrinth of planning, legal, and technical hurdles.

The village, like around 1.5 million UK households, primarily relied on oil for central heating. With no access to the mains gas, residents were disproportionately affected by volatile oil prices, exacerbating the risk of fuel poverty. The oil heating systems also contributed significantly to the UK's carbon emissions.

In 2016, Fletcher, chair of the local community land trust, spearheaded the initiative by installing heat pumps powered by solar PV in eight newly built affordable homes in the village. Fuelled by the project's success and a desire to eliminate oil dependency, Fletcher teamed up with Barker, an environmental consultant, to expand the green heating network.

Funded by a £20,000 government grant, an initial feasibility study led them to consider a centralised boiler running on woodchip. However, Fletcher and Barker decided on a more sustainable solution using ground source heat pumps. Cambridgeshire County Council provided a plot of land on the outskirts of the village where they drilled over 100 boreholes to power the energy centre.

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 transformation involved significant challenges, including numerous grant applications, public consultations, and surveys. Additionally, the installation of the heat network disrupted the village with roadworks, causing significant disarray.

Approximately 150 of the 200 households in the village core have since signed up to join the heat network, with 25 already connected. The project, designed to scale up to 300 properties, offers significant benefits to residents. The energy centre circulates water heated to 74C around the village and into homes via a heat exchanger. Residents pay a metered tariff to the council, which owns the infrastructure, that's set below the going rate for oil. An annual service charge replaces the need for homeowners to service their boilers or cover costly repairs.

The cost of the project has drawn criticism, with a total price tag of £12m, averaging out at £80,000 per home for the 150 that have signed up. The county council secured £3.2m in grants and took out a loan for the remainder. However, advocates argue that innovation invariably has a high upfront cost.

According to Positive News, the Swaffham Prior model has sparked interest from other oil-dependent communities keen to transition to renewable energy. While Fletcher is proud to be a pioneer, she emphasises that the project's success will be measured by its replication in other communities. Government support remains available through the Heat Networks Delivery Unit and Green Heat Network Fund.

This Cambridgeshire village's transformation into a heat pump community, despite the initial cost and complexity, stands as a promising model for a sustainable future, illustrating the role of local communities in fighting climate change.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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