Mark Engineer

Mark Engineer – author and Barcombe resident

Mark Engineer, of local community energy company Ovesco, reports on a pioneering project aiming to get rural communities off oil-based heating that’s being trialled in Barcombe near Lewes.

My family and I live in Barcombe and we love pretty much everything about it. The people, the countryside, the school. But not the heating in our house. Like most of the village, we’re on oil heating. And oil heating is, quite frankly, a bit rubbish.

The price fluctuates a lot. It’s messy and smelly. It gets delivered in a great big tanker. You have to remember to monitor your oil levels. We managed to run out last winter and I had to fill the tank from jerrycans – staggering about, trying my very hardest not to spill oil over my clothes and my garden, and failing miserably. But worst of all, of course, is that it creates a LOT of CO2.

Barcombe clean power

Hazel Rayner, another Barcombe resident looking forward to oil-free home-heating

Pretty much everyone I speak to in Barcombe wants to come off oil. But…well, there’s generally a but! It might be just too expensive. Or it might be because the technology or funding available isn’t clear. Perfectly understandable – there’s plenty of misinformation, tech is changing all the time, and government funding can be tricky to navigate. Or there could be other reasons.

And it’s not just us in Barcombe, of course. Around 4 million rural households in the UK run on oil heating, and plenty of them are around Lewes.  For me it’s a bit like the climate and environmental emergency in a microcosm. You know there’s a huge problem. You know you should do something, and fast. But you’re not sure what. It’s too big, confusing and daunting. So you don’t think about it. And you don’t act.

Tackling the crisis requires what Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement, calls “the reclaiming of our imagination”.  And at Ovesco, the community energy company for the Ouse Valley, we’re working with the people of Barcombe to do just that at a local level.

Towards the end of last year we launched a major project – the first of its kind in the UK! – in Barcombe. It’s called ‘CommuniHeat’ and we’re running it for the next two years in partnership with electricity distribution network operator UK Power Networks and engineering consultancy Buro Happold.

The first phase involves gathering data on current energy usage from around 200 homes – dozens of residents have already volunteered. Locally recruited ‘Energy Champions’ are gathering these data by undertaking surveys and installing free monitors. The data will then be used to plan for how the village could make the transition to electricity, and ultimately to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Exciting stuff, right? But wait, there’s more. We want to create a masterplan that could be replicated across the country, and make Barcombe a pioneer in sustainable energy.

OK, you might be thinking. So you’ll have a plan, you’ll know what work is needed for the transition. Great! How will it be paid for? That will depend on lots of things: what changes are required, the costs, the types of funding and initiatives available, the Government’s decarbonisation strategy. The most important thing is that it should be achievable and affordable for all. That is the essence of community energy, and is why all of what we are doing is underpinned by a community energy approach.

I’m excited about this on many levels. Perhaps the most exciting thing is the thought of everyone – Ovesco, UK Power Networks, Buro Happold and the people of Barcombe – doing this thing together. And that allows for that reclamation of the imagination. We can imagine this kind of thing happening everywhere – across the UK, and the world. Who knows what we could all achieve together?

As I said, the climate crisis in a microcosm.

If you live in Barcombe Parish and want to volunteer for a home energy survey, or have any questions about CommuniHeat, please call Ovesco on 01273 472405 or email communiheat@ovesco.co.uk