A MASSIVE underground heat network which could provide struggling families across Oxford with cheaper energy has been mapped out.

Energy experts working for Oxford City Council have for the first time illustrated how the system could heat the whole city.

Under the new designs, a huge new power plant at Headington's Warneford Hospital would heat water and generate electricity which could then be carried to homes in the city centre, East Oxford, Rose Hill and Blackbird Leys.

The power plant would be low-carbon, lowering carbon dioxide emissions as well as providing people with cheaper energy.

This grand vision has been drawn up for the city council by energy consultants Building Research Establishment (BRE) and Greenfield.

The authority is jointly investigating the possibilities with the city's two universities and hospitals to cut thousands of tonnes of carbon emissions.

In the latest in a series of feasibility studies, the consultants have proposed three possible networks which could be built in Headington.

The first two are modest in scope, linking various university and hospital buildings, but the third would link a major new low-carbon power plant at the Warneford with Oxford Brookes University's two campuses on Gipsy Lane and Headington Hill as well as Headington School and Cheney School.

The new power plant would be built on 4.6sq km of land next to the hospital known as Warneford Meadow.

It would supply hot water for washing and heating as well as electricity, saving all those involved money and cutting carbon emissions.

The report goes on to envision how this Headington network could kick-start the creation of a city-wide version.

The authors describe how pipes could be laid running from Headington down through East Oxford and Cowley to Blackbird Leys, crossing areas where more than 20 per cent of households are living in 'fuel poverty' according to government measures.

The report states: "The network strategy as proposed could help alleviate fuel poverty in Oxford through the provision of affordable heat."

As for fuel, the report authors recommend either gas or woodchips, both of which could result in thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions being saved.

Over a 40-year period the network could potentially save 150,476 tonnes.

The Headington-wide heat network would cost an estimated £9m to create.

The power plant could be owned and run entirely by the university or hospitals; it could be a collaboration between several city organisations, or the network could be community-owned and run, like Osney Mead hydroelectric power plant.

Whoever owns the power plant and network infrastructure will have to pay for its upkeep, but they will also sell the power generated to the other users.

The BRE consultants estimated that the Headington-wide network could cost as much as £1m a year to run, but generate £1.3m income – net profit of £300,000 a year.

Oxford City Council head of energy Paul Robinson said: "This could effectively be a central heating system for the whole city.

"It is easiest to start closest to the source of the heat but you then make sure you have the option to expand."

The council is now tendering for a detailed project development study on creating networks in Headington and the city centre.