The Ground Beneath Our Feet

Deep in Coal Country, researchers are seeking Green Energy solutions in our industrial past.

Saturday 11th July should have been the 149th Durham Miners’ Gala. Most readers will know the Gala as the largest Trade Union event in Europe, full of bands, banners, and rousing speeches from the Labour Movement’s most influential figures. In reality, the Gala is two separate but concurrent events; the political behemoth, and the communal expression of a deep and rich industrial identity. Before the bands and banners arrive in the City, they march through their towns and villages as families clap along in the street. Communities fundraise through the year to pay for the banners’ upkeep. Former pitmen lay wreaths to fallen comrades on mining memorials.

Throughout most of its history, the Gala’s two elements have been synonymous, but with the Red Wall crumbling last December, industrial identity is outlasting political allegiances. To regain the latter, Labour must have a full understanding of, and appreciation for, the former. The last mine may have shut in 1993, but this is still coal country. A winning industrial strategy will reinvigorate the North East economy, moving it towards carbon neutrality while drawing on its heritage as a vital source of Britain’s energy.

For a blueprint for a green coalfield revival, look no further than Durham itself. The University’s Energy Institute has identified the County’s old mine shafts as a low-carbon heat source. By extracting water from mine shafts at around 12-16°C, compressing it to increase the temperature, and circulating it through heating systems, the Institute’s Heat Hub has found a way to utilise the industrial infrastructure at the heart of the County’s coal communities for energy production once again.

Researchers clearly understand the historical significance of their work, recognising an opportunity to ‘decarbonise heat supply’ while ‘revitalising communities affected by the decline of coal mining.’ And communities in the North East have already begun to benefit. Spennymoor, a County Durham mining town and home of the celebrated pitman painter Norman Cornish, started the ball rolling on a geothermal project in 2017, and this April, Gateshead Borough Council received a £5.9m government grant to heat 1,250 homes as part of a joint project with the Energy Institute. A new 1,500-home garden village in Seaham, East Durham, will be heated by water from old mineworkings.

The Heat Hub’s research has the potential to solve geothermal energy’s big problem; the upfront cost and risk of exploratory drilling. Traditional geothermal energy sources in the UK tend to lie over 1km underground in caves, hydrocarbon wells or strati of radiothermal granite. The water at these depths is usually a minimum of 35°C, much warmer than the water in mine shafts, but the cost of drilling so far down, and the difficulty of predicting where to find sufficient quantities of water, have hindered the growth of geothermal energy in the UK. Most UK mine shafts are shallower than 1km, reducing initial costs substantially, and since we have records of historic mineworkings, we know where the water will be. If pilot schemes prove successful, their effects could be felt across the nation; 25% of the UK’s built environment sits atop mine shafts, and researchers estimate they could produce enough heat to meet our domestic needs for over a century.

Despite geothermal’s huge potential to help the UK meet its climate change obligations, the Government has struggled to take advantage. The Durham Energy Institute recommend a clearer strategy for decarbonising heat, a new licensing system for geothermal projects, updated regulation and a planning policy to include geothermal in new developments where possible. Without these changes, the water will stay in the mines. In the short term, Labour can fill this vacuum through campaigning, but in the long term, it could form a basis of a plan to restore jobs, identity and dignity to the communities it is losing. As the Durham Miners’ Association motto reminds us: ‘the past we inherit, the future we build.’ If Labour wants a chance to build the future of the coalfield, reclaiming our mines seems like a good starting point.

Maura McKeon is a councillor and activist in County Durham, North East England.

She tweets at @mauracmckeon 

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