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Vast village heat pump tests one route to net zero for rural Britain

By Kate Holton, Natalie Thomas and Hannah McKay

SWAFFHAM PRIOR, England (Reuters) - In a quiet field in eastern England a vast heat pump generates enough warmth to supply houses throughout a historic village, a pilot project testing ways to spur renewable energy use in a country that is falling behind its net zero targets.

Resembling a large agricultural site, with gleaming silver water vats, the heat pump produces water hot enough to feed existing domestic systems, removing the need for costly home retrofits. A 60-year funding scheme removed upfront costs.

Supporters say the network, the first of its kind in rural Britain, not only shows one way for the UK to catch up with Europe on heat pump adoption, but addresses how it can fund the wider net zero transition when household finances are tight.

"The truth is getting to net zero is going to cost money," said Miles Messenger from Bouygues Energies & Services, which helped design and build the heat network in Swaffham Prior, near the university city of Cambridge.

"What this project brings in particular is a demonstration of how to do everything in one go for a village community."

The government's official climate advisers have said Britain is not doing enough to meet its net zero target.

If it is to hit the goal by 2050 it will need to decarbonise 28 million homes - a major challenge when 85% rely on piped natural gas for heating and hot water, and when that gas is significantly cheaper than the electricity used by heat pumps.

To tackle the almost one-third of UK carbon emissions that come from heating, it has a target of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028. But progress has been slow, with installations expected to flatline at around 55,000 this year.

In 2022 that rate of delivery put Britain 21st out of 21 countries in the European Heat Pump Association's ranking for heat pumps sold per 1,000 households, although those figures can be distorted by the inclusion of heat pumps which provide air conditioning as well as heating.

DRIVING CHANGE

In Swaffham Prior, where a majority of homes were heated by oil, the team tested multiple scenarios to drive uptake. They found one large network would be more efficient than individual heat pumps, while the community approach and lack of upfront payment meant residents were more willing to sign up.

The 12 million pound ($15 million) cost was covered by a 3 million pound government grant and a loan secured by the local council which will be repaid via household bills over 60 years. To help the switch, bills are index-linked to be in line or less than the cost of heating oil and will in time be indexed to the price of electricity.

So far in a village of two churches, two windmills and around 300 houses, more than 60 are connected to the heat pump which uses both air and ground heat sources. More than 35 are ready to be added, and others are weighing whether to join.

Those behind the project say it will not work for all communities - rural or urban - but it shows how the costs of the energy transition can be made more manageable.

Lorna Dupre, at Cambridgeshire County Council, said residents wanted government to tackle climate change because the cost of not doing so was too great: many local areas are below sea level and parts of the region are already short of water.

"The demands, the asks of residents are becoming greater as the scale of the crisis becomes greater," she said.

The heat pump industry is closely following the progress of the UK's first rural heat network, as it acknowledges that high initial costs for individual installations can put people off, even if a heat pump may be cheaper in the long run.

Heat pumps are most cost-effective when used in well-insulated homes with large emitters, such as under-floor heating. Britain's Heat Pump Association says demand will also only really take off if the taxes and levies system are used to lower the cost of electricity.

The government said last week however it had seen a leap in heat pump applications after it increased the grant on offer in England and Wales to 7,500 pounds. That funding means the cost of installation can be comparable to getting a new gas boiler.

Bouygues's Messenger says heat pumps are the best way to hit net zero but the country needs a national financing plan.

Several small community pilot projects have taken off. In Swaffham Prior, Mike Barker was motivated to act as he hated the sight of his oil tank.

"Every morning when I make a cup of coffee, it makes me smile that there's not a plume of oil fumes that I can see," he said. His only problem now is the new system runs hot.

"We keep having to turn it down," he said.

(Writing by Kate Holton; Editing by Catherine Evans)