The adage goes, ‘If you want to learn something, teach it.’ I think equally true is, ‘If you want to learn about something, write about it.’
East Anglia Bylines asked me to contribute a piece on a local energy project for their series of articles to run during COP26. In brief, the little-known village of Swaffham Prior, England is planning to use ground and air source heat pumps to bring heat into homes through a centralised community network. Until now, such heat pumps have been used for individual buildings and housing/office developments. This village will be among the first places in the UK to connect an entire community to a renewable heating network.
As I mentioned in the article, some seventy percent of the village’s 300 homes are currently burning oil for heating. What I didn’t mention was my surprise at learning this. At the risk of sounding naïve, I thought heating oil went out with flower power (that’s a reference to the 1960s for my younger readers). I had assumed every home in Britain was on the National Grid by now.
According to statistica.com (UK: heating methods survey 2021 | Statista), some 4% of UK homes – that’s over one million households – use oil-burning for heat. Nearly all of these are in rural areas and small villages like Swaffham Prior. Nearly 90% of homes in the UK use gas, the vast majority of which are on the national grid using central heating systems. Like other Western nations, we have a long way to go towards green energies.
Being off the grid once had a certain romantic appeal, a sense of independence from government-led systems. When it comes to home heating, for me this fantasy evaporated back in the 80s when I found myself living in Scotland with only a gas fireplace – no radiators. I recall winter mornings seeing the steam from my breath as I put on the kettle.
The only other time that I lived off grid was in Oman (2014-2015). Gas was only used for cooking and was delivered in large canisters that were hooked up outside our apartment building. Each canister lasted a few months and cost the equivalent of $2 (water was more expensive). The trick was knowing when you needed a refill and then keeping your eyes open for the pickup truck with canisters in tow. As for winter heating, there wasn’t any. In the coldest winter months, daytime temperatures were about 20C (68F) at their lowest. At night, being in the interior of Oman surrounded by desert, it could get quite cold, near freezing some nights. Our heating system consisted of fleece blankets and winter coats.
As an urban Westerner, I’ve grown accustomed to life on the grid, but I don’t see why we cannot follow in the footsteps of Swaffham Prior and other communities opting for what is essentially a green grid.