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CHEAP LOW-CARBON HEAT: local mine pioneers renewable energy of the future!

<<Coal mines helped fuel the Industrial Revolution and the development of our current climate emergency. But now a pioneering project in Gateshead is demonstrating that mines will be a valuable part of finding solutions. Its mine water heat pump project is already winning awards, and has plans to expand further. No surprise, then, that Climate Action Newcastle supporters were keen to arrange a briefing and tour.>>

Gateshead Energy’s mine water heat pump project is winning national accolades for its visionary progress in providing low-cost low-carbon heat and power. Yet few people are aware that, below our feet, a network of highly insulated pipes and cables is delivering heat and power through a new 5km network.

Its services are being used by Gateshead's International Stadium, the Baltic, The Glasshouse, civic buildings and neighbouring housing and offices. Expansion in East Gateshead is planned, particularly to social housing, aiming to connect 7,500 low-rise homes within a decade.


The benefits are remarkable. Heat and energy are produced with very low emissions and net zero looks achievable in the near future. Prices for residents are about 5% lower than other energy providers, and another big benefit is that underground equipment is likely to last 40 to 50 years, more than twice as long as current infrastructure (with the pipeline networks also having much greater longevity than existing energy supplies).


The local authority is taking a lead role in starting the project, creating Gateshead Energy and development partnerships, including with mine owners the Coal Authority. Initial funding has been provided from a variety of sources, including loans and grants, with the aim of building demand from industrial larger customers and deriving social value for residents (where scale is much smaller). There’s more background in this blog by CAN member Mima Cattan, who organised the CAN visit.


Are other areas developing schemes for their mines? Given the North East’s mining heritage and number of former pits, you might have thought most local authorities would be doing the same. However, they’re at different stages of exploration. Sunderland is piloting tapping a mine under the North Sea, potentially for future sale; South Tyneside has a small project using river water; Newcastle is grappling with complications caused by below-ground obstacles such as tunnels;  North Tyneside has little involvement; and Northumberland is considering other options, after an initial project in Blyth stalled. For the future, one interesting discussion was whether this type of energy would be better suited for wider infrastructure management – whether in public or private hands. In Scotland, for example, a “heat highway” is being considered, linking Edinburgh and Glasgow. And greater momentum is likely in the next few years, with an expectation that the UK will introduce a “pre-emptive policy” for new builds to be obliged to use local heat networks.


So how does it work? Our background blog has lots more detail. In a nutshell, the project uses two giant heat pumps; unlike most domestic heat pumps - which are air source heat pumps – this is a water source heat pump, drawing from boreholes drilled down to flooded former mines approximately 150 metres underground. The system, like any heat pump, works like an electric refrigerator in reverse, taking heat out of the water in order to provide hot water heating. The water then returns down to the mine, about 6 degrees cooler than when it was pumped up, and then warms up again.

A solar farm creates the power to drive the pumps, helping the project get close to net zero (the only emissions are some gas burning to create heat as redundancy; it’s hoped this may be eliminated in time, and the service ran at net zero for periods in summer 2023). Our group visited the panels farm, a 5 minute walk from the Energy Centre.

Across the River Tyne can be seen the Byker Wall - itself a pioneer of centralised heating supply systems, when it was built in the 1970s. CAN's John Adams demonstrates the size of each panel. They have been installed above the boreholes dropped to reach the former mines.


How resilient is this service? We’re used to hearing worries about peaks and troughs for renewable energy. However, mine schemes are exceptionally resilient;  drought is a minimal threat, as flooded mines are below sea level, and groundwater exists on a huge scale. Using ‘renewables’ or heat from waste mostly disconnects heat networks from potentially volatile energy markets. Using multiple renewables on one network builds greater resilience.


How scalable can mines be as energy sources? Former mines exist around the UK, including seams below sea. Future developments could potentially generate power from deeper geothermal sources 450m and below and also dry mines.


What are the benefits for tackling climate breakdown?

It's thought this single project is likely to save 72,000 tonnes of CO2 over 40 years. It also strengthens the overall contribution of renewables due to its reliability and resilience. As a clean energy, it improves air quality and it also is particularly suited to supporting the growth of large industrial infrastructure. The Government aims to grow it to form 20% of UK heat supply by 2050.

Heartfelt thanks from Climate Action Newcastle to event host Matthew Jordison (NetZero Innovation & Delivery Officer), for the tour, presentation and handling a wide range of questions with energy and enthusiasm. Matthew's insights are based on being a local resident himself, and he's seeking to involve local people in the debates and decisions about future directions.

***Thank you to CAN supporters Brian Gowthorpe and Jon Hanney for their expert advice on reporting this topic.

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