Swaffham Prior Heat Network

Swaffham Prior will be the recipient of a community heating system powered by heat pumps

Like many rural villages in the UK, Swaffham Prior, located in East Cambridgeshire, isn’t connected to the mains gas network, so residents rely on stored fossil fuel to provide heating and hot water to their homes. Besides being carbon intensive, using stored fuel also makes the village vulnerable to shortages and inflated oil prices.

Thanks to Cambridgeshire County Council’s commitment to reach net zero carbon by 2050, Swaffham Prior has become the first village to develop a rural heat network that replaced the existing storage infrastructure. Not only has this significantly reduced the village’s carbon emissions and eliminated environmental hazards, it has also protected residents from the associated risks of stored fuel.

Securing funding

The Swaffham Prior Heat Network project was started by Swaffham Prior Community Land Trust to address fuel poverty and local environmental issues caused by the village’s reliance on oil heating. The aim of the project is to deliver a system where 100% of the thermal energy demand of the village is met by renewable energy.

After securing local councillor support for the project, the Community Land Trust achieved funding for a feasibility study through the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Following completion of the feasibility study, the project made successful applications to BEIS Heat Network Development Unit (HNDU) and Heat Network Investment Project (HNIP). The HNIP awarded the full sum requested of £2,146,000, of which £1,791,000 was used to construct the heating system and the rest to commercialise the project. Alongside the significant grant funding provided by HNIP and HNDU, Cambridgeshire County Council also made a strategic investment in the project.

Cambridgeshire County Council owns the energy company and heat network assets. The council is responsible for the operation and management of the heat network, as well as customer services and billing. Technical engineering partner Equans UK & Ireland, which designed, built and installed the renewable heat network, has been appointed for the contractual responsibility of technical repair and maintenance. Swaffham Prior’s heat network is registered with consumer champion, the Heat Trust.

The heat network will be maintained by technical partner Equans

Inside story

Swaffham Prior is leading the way with a combination of renewable technologies including air-source and ground-source heat pumps, and electric boilers, with capacity to supply 1.7MW of heat to 300 homes.

Air-source heat pumps will be used to warm the heat network during the summer months. The ground-source heat pumps will use heat from the earth to do the same in the winter months, using the 108 closed-loop boreholes, with 7.5km of pipes running though the village. Closed-loop boreholes were selected, so there is no water uptake or release into the ground. Four electric boilers were put in place for very cold days or as an emergency backup.

Heat is delivered to each home via an underground network of highly insulated pipes running beneath the streets in Swaffham Prior. In every connected home, a heat interface unit receives heat from the heat network and transfers it to the radiators and hot water appliances. It also provides heat and hot water controls and a heat meter that can measure heat usage via the heat inlet and outlet pipes.

Boilers were replaced with Heat Interface Units (HIU). The heat temperature delivered to these units in homes has been set according to the air temperature outside. When the outdoor temperature is warm, less heat is provided. When the outdoor temperature is cool, more heat is provided, up to 72°C. The HIU installed will be maintained and serviced by Cambridgeshire County Council maintenance contractors as the heat network operators.

Network benefits

Choosing a heat network for Swaffham Prior had several benefits for both residents and Cambridgeshire County Council. For example, changing from oil to renewable heating only requires a few changes to individual heating systems. Additionally, the ability to deliver high temperature heating was suitable for the many older and listed homes in the village, which are more difficult to adapt for alternative technologies.

The system is also adaptable, so if new energy sources and technologies are developed in future decades, these can also potentially be connected into the heat network.

“The scheme will generate a long-term revenue for the council through the sale of heat to residents, subsidy revenues and carbon trade. It will be no more costly to residents than fuel oil,” says Miles Messenger, Energy Engineering Director for Equans UK & Ireland. “Furthermore, simulation models suggest the heat network will deliver 95% emissions abatement in year one, rising to 96% by 2030 and 99% by 2050. This enables Cambridgeshire County Council in meeting net zero targets and associated environmental strategies.”

Huge silver water vats are part of the system sited in the rural location

Running costs

The heat network’s efficiency means that energy pricing is competitive with equivalent electricity or gas costs. Swaffham Prior developed its renewable heat network ahead of national heat network regulation by Ofgem in 2022, where it was stated that a heat network is not considered a utility like gas, water or electricity by UK law. Therefore, pricing is not regulated at a national level.

In Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire County Council has set heat prices to be comparable with oil, which was historically the dominant heating fuel in the village. The aim of this was to ensure that customers who join won’t pay higher energy prices for changing to renewable heat sources.

Service standards are also not regulated by UK law. The Swaffham Prior’s Heat Network is registered with consumer champion, the Heat Trust. The Heat Trust is an independent, non-profit consumer champion for heat networks that holds suppliers to account for the benefit of everyone involved. They set the standards to make sure customers are treated fairly, working with suppliers to deliver high-quality customer service.

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