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Cambridgeshire village renewable energy project wins £2m funding

A pioneering project to take a Cambridgeshire village off highly-polluting oil heating and onto a renewable energy system has won £2m of government funding.

The Heating Swaffham Prior project applied for the cash to install a ground source heat pump that would supply the village with hot water and heating so that households could stop using fossil fuels.

Villagers have to rely on oil to run their central heating systems as Swaffham Prior is not connected to the gas network, like many rural areas.

But if the government wants to hit its zero carbon target by 2050, then communities like this will need help to find alternative sources of energy that can be retrofitted to homes, which may be hundreds of years old.

Shery French, project director for the energy investment unit at Cambridgeshire County Council, has been leading the project along with Swaffham Prior’s Community Land Trust.

Cllr Joshua Schuman, the county council's energy project director Sheryl French, mayor James Palmer, Mike Barker and Emma Fletcher, from the Community Land Trust, outside Shire Hall
Cllr Joshua Schuman, the county council's energy project director Sheryl French, mayor James Palmer, Mike Barker and Emma Fletcher, from the Community Land Trust, outside Shire Hall

She said: “This is fantastic news, not just for Swaffham Prior but it gives confidence to the market that the model we have developed can be replicated for others and will now be used as a template for other on-oil communities.

“We know there are 10,000 homes in Cambridgeshire on oil. The idea is this project will be the first on many. Already other villages including Barrington, Great Staughton and Perry, Grantchester and Reach are looking into alternatives. All of these villages might come up with something different because every village is bespoke.”

The aim of the scheme is to allow all households to make the ‘green choice’ by replacing their existing, often large, floor oil boilers with a smaller wall-mounted heat exchanger and removing their oil tanks from their gardens.

The planning application for the project was submitted last week (Friday, July 17). If successful, 130, 200m deep boreholes will be drilled into the ground to extract heat, which will be distributed to homes across the village via a series of pipes called a heat network.

A large air source heat pump will supplement the energy extracted from the ground and solar panels will also provide renewable electricity to run the heat pumps at the energy centre.

The project was first suggested to the county council in 2017 by the Swaffham Prior Community Land Trust, which spotted a piece of local authority land in the village that could be used to house a renewable energy source for the village.

Following a series of technical studies, it was decided that a ground source heat pump could provide thermal energy to be pumped through a network into homes within the village.

In March 2019, a grant was received, enabling the appointment of a project team, which set about canvassing. The aim is to connect homes by March next year, subject to planning permission. So far, 166 homes have signed up to the scheme.

Sheryl said: “The reason the government is so interested in this pilot is that there hasn’t been another village which has come forward saying we would like to get off oil or gas. So what they are keen to do is show that through villagers working together you can come up with a solution that is deliverable and will save a lot of carbon emissions.

“The government currently uses finance incentives to encourage individuals either to buy solar panels or to install an air source heat pump, but the challenge with that is not everybody can afford to pay up front to install that technology as an example.”

She explained that fitting an air source heat pump to her own home in Cambridge coast around £15,000, even with subsidies.

“Not everyone has that kind of money up front so they can make use of a finance incentive,” she said. “With this project we wanted to say that anybody can join the scheme. You don’t have to have the money up front and so it takes away from the issue that only the wealthy can do it or that only people who prioritise it can do it.”

Waiting for people to install their own systems, even if they can afford it, also relies on them finding the time to undergo a major upheaval in their home. If work is being done to the entire village, it takes away that decision.

The Heating Swaffham Prior project applied for grant funding from Heat Network Investment Project in April 2020 and has been awarded the full sum requested of £2,146,000, of which £1,791,000 will be used to construct the heating system and the rest to commercialise the project. The HNIP fund is supported by the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The project team is set to apply for planning permission this autumn and if that is successful the first homes will be connected to the renewable heat source next year.

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