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Drilling for Geothermal energy at Louisa Centre Stanley

A Durham Energy Institute project exploring whether water from abandoned mines could be used to heat the UK’s homes is among 11 new projects being announced today by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in a drive to decarbonise the heating and cooling of buildings.

The Geothermal Energy from Mines and Solar-Geothermal heat (GEMS) project led by Professor Jeroen van Hunen, of Durham University’s Earth Sciences Department, will explore whether water in flooded, abandoned mines could be used as a low-carbon, geothermal source of heat.


It has been estimated that there is enough heat within the UK’s coalfields to meet the demands of all the buildings that lie over them. It could therefore particularly benefit economically disadvantaged former mining communities.


The research team includes experts from the University’s Business School, Earth Sciences, Engineering and Anthropology departments, brought together through the University’s innovative Durham Energy Institute. 


The team will work with the British Geological Survey (BGS) and industrial and governmental experts to assess and address the technical, social, and financial challenges and risks of exploiting disused, flooded coal mines as a source for long-term sustainable heat for homes and businesses in the UK.


By integrating novel simulation tools, innovative heat storage solutions, thorough evaluation of the governance and economic landscape, and community participation, this interdisciplinary project will provide integrated solutions, from initial heat extraction to the end user, for maximising mine water geothermal heat energy.


International partners from policy, regulatory and industry sectors include the Coal Authority, Mijnwater BV in the Netherlands, Durham County Council, Clyde Gateway, Glacier Energy, Lanchester Wines, and Geoenergy Durham.


Project lead, Professor Jeroen van Hunen, Department of Earth Sciences, said:

“Heat is one of the most stubborn areas to decarbonise, so we are delighted that this project enables us to make major steps towards renewable heat in the UK.

“Working across disciplines and engaging directly with affected communities, this project demonstrates the best in holistic energy research which Durham Energy Institute is known for.

“We are extremely grateful for this opportunity to look at all aspects of mine geothermal heating in an integrated manner”.


Professor Simone Abram, from Durham University’s Department of Anthropology and Director at Durham Energy Institute said:

“It is incredibly exciting to be working with geoscientists and engineers who have a real interest in how their work affects communities in the UK.

“At DEI, we have concentrated our efforts on integrating the social, scientific and engineering sciences, and this project represents another step in contributing towards a Just Transition.”


Dr Huashan Bao, from Durham University Engineering said:

 “This is a great opportunity to address one of the most difficult decarbonisation sectors in the UK – renewable heating. At the Engineering Department, we will explore and demonstrate a solar-geothermal dual seasonal thermal energy storage system by using thermochemical sorption technology, which is a potential game changer for achieving a sustainable heating future.”


The GEMS team will be using the BGS run UK Geoenergy Observatory in Glasgow as part of the project. The UK Geoenergy Observatories are a £31million investment by the UK government through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). At the Glasgow Observatory 12 boreholes have been drilled into flooded mine workings and equipped with a range of sensor systems which will provide essential data from underground for the project.

Dr Mike Spence, science director for the UK Geoenergy Observatories at the British Geological Survey, said:

“The Glasgow observatory provides scientists with at-scale test facilities that can be used to improve our understanding of how heat is transported in former mine workings.”“The observatory provides access for long-term studies and a degree of operational flexibility that isn’t possible at commercial geothermal sites. This is important for the calibration of heat and flow models and the testing of new equipment. “ 


Heating is one of the largest contributors to the UK’s carbon emissions, with nearly 13 per cent of greenhouse gases a result of home heating using fossil fuels, a similar level to emissions from cars.

And with the UK set to experience hotter summers in the future, the carbon cost of cooling buildings will also continue to grow unless renewable methods of generating this energy are found.

The 11 projects announced today are supported by a £14.6 million investment from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), both part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

They will explore a variety of different ways for the UK to transition to using efficient, decarbonised and sustainable technologies for heating and cooling buildings and for the food cold-chain.


Minister for Climate Change Lord Callanan said:

“The way we use energy in our buildings makes up almost a third of all UK carbon emissions. Reducing that to virtually zero is going to be key to eradicating our contribution to climate change by 2050.

“That’s why it’s important that innovative projects like GEMS in Durham receive backing to develop new and effective ways to heat and cool our homes and workspaces, helping drive down the costs of low-carbon technologies so everyone can feel the benefits of cheaper and greener energy.”

EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Dame Lynn Gladden said:

“With the heating and cooling of buildings accounting for a large share of the UK’s carbon emissions, there is a pressing need to develop sustainable new methods of generating and supplying energy for these purposes.“In the build-up to COP26, these new projects highlight how innovative new technologies and approaches will play a key role in reducing emissions and helping the UK to achieve its Net Zero goals.”

Multidisciplinary Project Team

Durham University researchers:

Professor Jeroen van Hunen, Department of Earth Sciences (Project lead)

Professor Stefan Nielsen, Department of Earth Sciences

Dr Stuart Jones, Department of Earth Sciences

Professor Tony Roskilly, Department of Engineering

Dr Zhiwei Ma, Department of Engineering

Dr Huashan Bao, Department of Engineering

Prof Simone Abram, Department of Anthropology 

Prof Sandra Bell, Department of Anthropology

Dr Laura Marsiliani, Department of Business School


The British Geological Survey researchers:

Dr Alison Monaghan

Dr Johanna Scheidegger   

Dr Anna Hicks