LONDON – The aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, which dates back to 18 yearsth-Britain century, were huge.
The abundance of coal in the UK – as well as the ease with which it could be accessed – was a crucial component of this historic turning point that set in motion the steam engines that contributed to the transformation of society.
But that has changed. The number of existing coal mines has shrunk, and last June authorities announced that Britain would stop using coal to produce electricity from October 2024, a year earlier than the original 2025 target.
Although most mines in the UK have closed, their centuries-old history is not necessarily over. In Scotland, work is underway to consider how water that has flooded old, unused mines can be used to heat buildings without carbon.
This study is conducted by a facility known as the Glasgow Geoenergy Observatory, which is managed by the British Geological Survey. A dozen wells have been drilled, most of them located in Rotherglen, a city southeast of Glasgow.
According to those behind the project, both Glasgow and Rutherglen were home to some of the busiest coal mines in Scotland. After their closure, natural floods filled them with water at a temperature of about 12 degrees Celsius.
This figure shows one of Glasgow’s observatories in Scotland. A total of 12 wells have been drilled as part of the project.
Mike Stevenson, who until recently was chief decarbonisation scientist at the British Geological Survey, told CNBC that the project involves “researching heat in coal mines and, to some extent, whether heat can be stored in old coal mines.”
Stevenson said there was a team at the site “experimenting with … how fast water flows among these mines, how warm the water is, how … quickly, when you take warm water, the water replenishes – so quickly the heat returns.”
“This is a research site, not a demonstration,” he said. Research has been conducted “to try to understand the limits of the amount of heat, how much heat there is.”
“All of these things will be a set of scientific conclusions, equations and models,” he added. He said it would provide valuable information to both companies and local authorities interested in the idea.
“It will help them decide where to do it, how close you drill the holes, how deep you drill them, how you design them to make it as efficient as possible.”
The project has made progress over the last 12 months or so. In the summer of 2021 it was announced the completion of tests of pumping and collecting samples from 10 wells of the site.
“Recent data show that Glasgow Observatory wells are well connected to flooded workings,” said Alan MacDonald, a hydrogeologist with the British Geological Survey.
The water temperature in the mines 50 to 90 meters near Glasgow is 11 to 13 degrees Celsius, he added. For comparison, the average temperature of Scottish groundwater is 10 degrees, MacDonald said.
According to the UK Coal Authority, 25% of UK residential real estate is in coal deposits. As a source of heating the potential of underground, flooded mines, such as those explored in Glasgow, seems significant.
Citing its own calculations, the Coal Authority says that “the constant replenishment of water in these mines could potentially be a large enough resource to meet all the heating needs of coal deposits.” It can also have applications in areas such as manufacturing and horticulture.
“Water in these mines is a low-carbon, sustainable source of heat that, under the right conditions, can compete with the prices of gas supplied to the population, and provides carbon savings of up to 75% compared to gas heating,” the statement said.
Many governments are trying to move away from coal, but it still plays a crucial role in many countries. According to the International Energy Agency, coal provides about a third of the world’s electricity production.
The Paris organization reported in December last year coal-fired power generation was set to reach an all-time high in 2021. As for coal mining, the IEA said that “the forecast will reach a record high in 2022 and then go to the plateau as demand decreases.”
Although coal has been crucial to the planet’s industrialization and remains an important source of electricity, coal has a significant impact on the environment.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration lists a number of emissions from coal combustion. These include carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen particles and oxides.
Elsewhere, Greenpeace described coal as “the dirtiest and most polluting way to produce energy.”
In the north-east of England, the South Tyneside Council is working on a project to redesign part of the area’s mining heritage.
According to the council, the Hebburn Minewater project worth £ 7.7 million ($ 10.4 million) will “draw geothermal energy from abandoned flooded mines in the former Hebburn stone mine”.
The initiative aims to provide heat to several buildings owned by the council, through the use of mine water from old stone, which opened in late 18th century and closed in 1932.
The project focuses on drilling two wells. A heat pump with a water source will extract the heat of the mine water, after which it will be compressed to a much higher temperature. After the transfer to the energy center, a new network of pipes will be used for distribution.
The Council is working on a project to be completed in June 2023, together with Durham University and the Coal Authority. In October last year, it was announced that tests showed that the water temperature in the mine was higher than expected.
Attempts to use the warm water of flooded mines are not unique to the UK. In 2008, a facility was opened in the Netherlands, which the European Commission called the world’s first power plant from mine water. A similar project, based on the use of mine water to heat buildings in Asturias in northern Spain, has also been developed.
Returning to South Tyneside, adviser Ernest Gibson, whose report covers climate change, told CNBC about the industry’s deep relationship with the area and his hopes for the future.
“The economy of the district has decreased [as] as soon as the coal mines closed, ”said Gibson, a former miner.
He explained how the closure of the coal mine affected not only the mining industry but also others such as the steel and transportation industries, as well as smaller operations such as local shops and the “locksmith”, a term for a person who will buy, collect and sell old things.
Gibson further told CNBC that he was “proud” of the fact that old coal mines were being used again.
“Coal production has closed, but … they have revived in a different format,” he said, later gaining a more philosophical tone. “It’s like life – everything changes, nothing stands still. And I think it’s for the better. “