Geothermal Energy — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 10:56 am on 15th September 2021.

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[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 2:30 pm, 15th September 2021

Before we begin, may I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission? Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Chief Whip

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered opportunities for geothermal energy extraction.

I look forward to today’s debate, and it is encouraging to see so many colleagues in attendance. Tapping into the abundant energy stored in the heat beneath the Earth’s surface is not a new idea, but exploiting those vast resources has often been overlooked in favour of other forms of renewables that are more readily captured on top of the ground. We have come a long way since first using sources such as onshore or offshore wind, tidal and solar energy to decarbonise our electricity supplies, and Scotland now produces about 97.4% of its electricity consumption from renewables.

There is a still a long way to go on decarbonising heat, with heating and hot water making up around 40% of the UK’s energy consumption. The potential for geothermal energy to help plug the gap, providing an indigenous, low-carbon and green alternative for heating homes, is huge. The British Geological Survey’s report into unlocking geothermal potential estimates that resources in the UK

“are sufficient to deliver about 100 years of heat supply for the entire UK” and to provide the equivalent of 85% of Scotland’s, or 9% of England’s, current electricity demands. Of course, being theoretically available is very different from being technically available, and how easily it can be exploited depends on the detailed nature of geology, the closeness of the population base and the sheer scale of projects, depths drilled and the method of extraction to be considered.

Geothermal energy ranges from shallow-depth ground source heat pumps that are already operating on a small scale to heat individual homes, up to deep geothermal extraction such as the United Downs geothermal power project, which is the deepest production well on UK soil, at 5,275 metres, and which extracts power from the naturally hot water in the granite rocks deep beneath Cornwall. Somewhere between those two scales, we find a happy medium: geothermal used for district heating networks for local homes and businesses. There is so much potential for development of these types of heating schemes, and at far more efficient cost, if we can take advantage of the maze of disused mines full of warm water that is below our feet.

For communities devastated by the pit closures, it would be a fantastic change of fortune to see the legacy of the industrial past being repurposed for a green energy future. I have a particularly keen interest in this option for my constituency of Midlothian, which has a long coalmining history and a vast labyrinth of old pits beneath the ground. We are from unique, as an estimated quarter of UK homes are situated on former coalfields. Repurposing the infrastructure to extract energy from the coalmines yet again, but this time in a sustainable way, is an tremendously exciting prospect.

Although we have the potential, widespread use of geothermal resources is still very limited in the UK. There are many challenges to overcome, including ownership, planning and regulatory frameworks, upfront costs and risks, and the identification of suitable sites. On the latter, I welcome the work by the Coal Authority and British Geological Survey to identify abandoned mines that are potential sources of heat for nearby homes, and to make such information available openly to developers, planners and researchers. Increasing the understanding and knowledge of geothermal at a local level has a long way to go, but it is going in the right direction.

Detailed research under way through the UK Geoenergy Observatories is producing open-access data to assist in developing geothermal from potential to commercial reality. The Glasgow Geoenergy Observatory, which officially opened in December 2020, is focused on mine water and produces what its science lead, Dr Alison Monaghan, described as

“an unprecedented look into the subsurface.”

That is vital to understanding the role that shallow mine-heat energy could have in decarbonising our energy supply, the risk involved in environmental management, and the regulation needed.

The ambitious scale of research facilities should help to kickstart technical innovations and to tackle some of the challenges of geothermal that have perhaps slowed progress in the past. We have been looking into geothermal for quite a while now, without making the most of its potential. Early feasibility studies included the 2004 Shawfair mine-water project in Midlothian, which looked at the potential for using mine water and heat pump technology to supply a new community heating scheme on the site of the former Monktonhall colliery. The report concluded that there was a potential for such a scheme, with mine water contributing up to 1,708 GWh of heat per annum. Frustratingly, progress stalled because of issues around ownership, although much of the work has helped projects in other countries around Europe—so it was not all for nothing.

The British Geological Survey’s report “Unlocking the potential of geothermal energy in the UK” looked at the progress of projects in European countries, such as France, the Netherlands and Germany, that have similar geothermal potential to the UK. It found that geothermal energy was

“contributing ever more significantly to the decarbonisation of the energy mix”,

generating jobs and helping to stimulate the economy. The report says:

“Experience in these countries has shown that the success of geothermal development is closely linked to their governments’ commitment to support this technology through policies, regulations, incentives and initiatives. Such success is linked specifically to 1) the availability of a long-term, stable regulatory framework and 2) the willingness of the state to share economic risks.”

The landscape is messy, and there are many measures that could be taken by the Government to help geothermal to progress more quickly from early stage to establishing a market. Perhaps it is unsurprising that, between 2000 and 2006, after the EU had concluded a major €20 million study into geothermal energy extraction from closed mines in both Midlothian and the Netherlands, the findings were only implemented on the continent, and Midlothian never saw the benefits. That highlights not only the value of the kind of cross-border research that has been stripped away by leaving the EU but also the important role that national Governments play in fostering the success of such schemes.

Among the steps that need to be taken are a reliable financial incentive for geothermal technology and clear, more streamlined regulations to underpin projects. It is fair to say that the Government’s commitment to renewable energy has been half-baked at best so far—remembering the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s flip-flop from “the greenest government ever” to getting rid of the “green crap”. I am sure that there is now an honest enthusiasm for geothermal, but there is ground to be made up, and that requires a commitment to drive things forwards. We need a clear geothermal roadmap, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s plan in her response.

On a positive note, while there is much to be done, I am pleased to see that we are taking steps in the right directions. Some aspects of the political landscape are, of course, the responsibility of the devolved Governments. While Scotland does not yet have large-scale geothermal projects, Scottish Government funding has supported a number of feasibility studies. The Scottish Government have been working closely with stakeholders to build on the experience of two small-scale geothermal developments in the central belt, which each ran for over a decade. They have also sought to clarify the regulatory framework for deep geothermal projects, producing guidance documentation in liaison with the relevant regulatory authorities. Heat networks will have a key role to play in supplying Scotland’s geothermal heat in the future, so I welcome the Heat Networks (Scotland) Act 2021, which became law earlier this year and will create the circumstances needed to unlock the full potential of the sector and support its growth.

Mine water is not the only overlooked energy resource that can fuel our green ambitions, but it can pose a danger if left ignored. In Midlothian, for example, there are serious concerns about mine-water discharge from the old colliery at Bilston Glen into the River Esk contaminating water, damaging natural habitats and increasing the risk of flooding. Temporary solutions, such as water treatment schemes, might look good in the short term, but they do not deliver anything for communities, and there is no benefit to those who would be impacted by such an outpouring of water. A long-term solution to keep the water levels under control is required, and would help generations to come. That is the kind of forward-looking outlook that the Government need to encourage and foster in the industry.

The green industrial revolution must not leave people behind but get people on board, and geothermal is one way we could do this. With the right support in place, it offers a fantastic opportunity to develop low-carbon heating systems, regenerate local economies and reawaken energy extraction in coal field communities sustainably. The development of mine water geothermal across Scotland alone could deliver economic growth equivalent to £303 million and about 9,800 jobs.

The timing of the debate is critical, as COP26 is just around the corner and the climate crisis is already upon us. I urge Governments of all nations to put aside their differences and work together to find practical solutions, not just warm words, to address it. Let us put meat on the bones of our ambitious geothermal technologies, and help them contribute much more significantly to our low-carbon energy mix. Let us get the policies right and make geothermal a critical part of the green revolution.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 2:40 pm, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. Thank you for being so kind in allowing me to speak early and leave early in order to deal with childcare, which I found out about before I came to the Chamber.

I commend Owen Thompson for securing this critical debate. I want to use this opportunity to celebrate the fact that we have a united front here. Who would have thought that the Scottish nationalist party—I know they hate me calling them that—and the Conservative party could be united in the belief that geothermal is of huge potential? I do not want to have a colliery-off with the hon. Gentleman, but if we want any colliery, we have to look at Chatterley Whitfield colliery in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, which is the largest complete deep coalmine site in the whole of Europe and was the first colliery in the United Kingdom to produce 1 million tonnes of coal, not just once but twice. If you ever want to come to visit it for a heritage visit, Mr Robertson, let me know, and the Chatterley Whitfield Friends will certainly give you a tour.

Geothermal energy could be a key element of our future energy supply, but it could hold even greater importance, as the hon. Gentleman said earlier, in ex-coalmining areas, such as the one I am proud to serve in in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Those coalfield communities are often overflowing with geothermal energy potential, and I am pleased to say that the same is true not just in Stoke-on-Trent but in the whole of north Staffordshire.

I want to focus on one site in the constituency—Chatterley Whitfield colliery. I know that my hon. Friend Jo Gideon will be talking about geothermal potential in her constituency. Stoke-on-Trent should absolutely be a test bed when it comes to this energy sector. Chatterley Whitfield colliery is currently a sleeping giant. It used to be a powerhouse for the coal industry, and it now has the potential to be at the forefront of the UK’s green industrial revolution. Discussions with the Coal Authority have revealed that the site has exciting geothermal potential, and infrastructure already exists on the site that could help with the development of a mine energy project, which could provide heat and energy for the local area.

Attached to the complete site is not just the colliery but a 10-hectare piece of land that was formerly brownfield but has become greenfield. If we get geothermal right, I do not see any reason why we could not build 300 or 400 houses on it that would be powered from the colliery that sits next door to it, giving people of Stoke-on-Trent the opportunity, and the Government the test bed they need, to show what geothermal can do in such an area.

The mine energy project would recover heat from below ground level, and with the help of a heat pump bring it to the surface. Based on early discussions with the Coal Authority, an initial pump is expected to deliver 1 MW of thermal output—enough to power 500 homes. That would build on the district heating network that Stoke-on-Trent City Council has been working on to bring low-maintenance, affordable heating to thousands of properties and businesses through a network of underground pipes that will harness the deep geothermal energy that lies more than 3 km beneath the surface of Stoke-on-Trent.

One of the main benefits of that source of heating is that it removes the need for traditional boilers, in line with the shift away from boilers, and has no risk of carbon monoxide. Chatterley Whitfield has an important role to play in our geothermal future, and Councillors Dave Evans, Carl Edwards and James Smith of Baddeley Green, Milton and Norton, Councillor Janine Bridges of Great Chell and Packmoor, and the Chatterley Whitfield Friends have been working to draw up a plan for the future of the site. Exciting discussions are under way about the site’s future, including how to preserve Chatterley Whitfield’s industrial heritage for education and tourism. If we harness the vast energy that lies beneath that silent colossus, and the vast potential of the site above ground, we can ensure it remains at the heart of Stoke-on-Trent’s story.

The Minister will have heard my hon. Friend Dr Mullan in Prime Minister’s questions today urging the Prime Minister to look at the idea of a long-term fixed tariff like we see in mainland Europe, which is unlocking millions of pounds of private capital. I want to support my hon. Friend in that, because ultimately if we do that, we give the protection that the private sector needs to heavily invest and unlock the potential. That means that we do not have to keep knocking on the Treasury’s door but can harness the ability of the private sector to do what it does best and find solutions to our problems.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead 2:44 pm, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I thank Owen Thompson for securing this important debate.

As we are now only 43 days away from the COP26 conference in Glasgow, this is the perfect opportunity to showcase some of the vital work that British companies are doing to pioneer green technologies, including the use of geothermal energy. In particular, let me tell the House about the incredible work that Titan Electricity, based in my constituency of Birkenhead, is doing with the support of the University of Liverpool and the Manufacturing Technology Centre. It has developed an artificially enhanced geothermal process that uses abandoned oil infrastructure to provide deep wells, in a process called thermogenesis. The oil in abandoned wells is converted into geothermal heat. These very hot fluids are then used to power a geo-engine, which has been designed by Titan and developed with the help of Lloyd’s Register, using a UK Energy Catalyst award.

The process is net zero, with no emissions, and the by-product is large volumes of cheap and clean hydrogen. While oil reservoirs on the UK’s continental shelf are commonly considered to have little future on the road to our 2050 net zero targets, the technology could have the potential to convert those fields into a net zero energy resource for generations to come. I urge the Minister to look seriously at the role that this technology could play in delivering green energy and highly skilled jobs, and in helping to meet the Government’s pledge to achieve 5 GW of hydrogen capacity by 2030. The large quantities of hydrogen created by this process can also be used to power the dismantling of legacy oil infrastructure, with as few emissions being released as possible.

Titan’s invention, made in the north-west, has immense possibilities to create green energy and reduce carbon emissions, not just here in the UK but across the world. Domestically, its manufacture would also create thousands of skilled jobs and apprenticeships in my town of Birkenhead and in the many left-behind communities like it that the Government have promised to level up.

Today I ask the Minister whether the Government will prove they are committed to making the UK a world leader in the innovation of green technology by helping to roll out the geo-engine and get it to market. Far too often, the Government’s record on green energy has failed to live up to their rhetoric. A commitment today to support this invention would provide an example for our presidency of COP26, by showing the world that the UK’s words are matched by our actions.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich 2:47 pm, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure, Mr Robertson, to serve under your chairmanship and I congratulate Owen Thompson on securing this important debate.

In relation to the technology around coalmines, I know that my hon. Friend Lee Anderson, who could not be in Westminster Hall today, is very supportive of it and has been working with the Coal Authority as well to push that agenda.

I will also put on the record my thanks to the Minister for the time she has given to date to those of us who are interested in this issue. I have been very grateful for the interest that she has shown, because this really is a critical time for us to get things right in this country. We know that we have huge challenges when it comes to switching to renewable energy and, perhaps even more relevantly, switching to heating our homes in a greener way. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting this process right, but we will not deliver if we are not using all the tools in all the toolbox when it comes to going green, and I believe that geothermal is a vital tool in that toolbox, with huge potential in some parts of the UK to heat millions of homes and provide energy as well.

Crewe is potentially one of the best places in the country to tap geothermal heating power. Crewe is home to a geothermal basin, which could be harnessed by energy companies and used as a clean source of energy and heat, and a breakthrough locally would lead to hundreds of good new jobs and to investment. After years of reports and studies, without results, I want to achieve progress for my constituents in Crewe and Nantwich. As we have heard already, there are similar opportunities in other places, such as Devon and Cornwall, Worcestershire, large parts of the north-east, Wessex, Scotland and even Ireland as well. For the Government to deliver on their levelling-up agenda, they need to ensure that investment and jobs to support the transition are spread as far as possible around the country.

I recognise that there are potential pots of money available, focused on grants for various elements, such as the transition from oil or the transition to heating differently. However, the industry has a clear ask, which I think is a better approach. What it wants to see is a replication of the renewable heat incentive at £55 per megawatt of heat as a long-term tariff and, importantly, just for the first 30 sites, so that the Government have a clear idea about what their outlay is up front. In exchange for that, industry will take on the risk and put in the capital. If they drill and do not get what we are expecting, then they have taken the hit and not the taxpayer. That is fundamentally a more conservative approach to getting this done, rather than industry having to go cap in hand to Government to ask for money for each project or bit of kit. We unleash the capital in the private sector and let it make the decisions about where this approach will work.

Where that approach is taken in other parts of the world, it is making a difference, particularly in Europe. In February this year, Vulcan Energy raised $120 million for geothermal development in Germany, and we have seen other investments by the likes of Kerogen and BP in countries where the Government have stepped up and put in place a tariff that gives them some security of return on their investment.

If we consider two issues in the news this week, we can see the importance of the contribution from the geothermal sector. Despite a surge in renewables, at times we are still forced to pay for coal power at very high rates when weather conditions diminish what we get from solar and wind energy. Geothermal is reliable and not subject to weather conditions.

When it comes to heating our homes, the Government have had no choice but to take the route of paying for new gas boilers because, with our current spread of technologies, it is not realistic to switch to other ways to heat homes in the short term. Geothermal can allow huge progress to be made on heating homes in the short term and on projects that we could see on the ground in the next few years.

The Government might ask themselves, “Will all this happen anyway? Will the market deliver anyway?” That is a fair question, but the investments are happening right now in other parts of the world where support from Government is delivered. We are missing out on that because we are not stepping up and doing the same thing. There are already 450 plants across European countries, delivering for their economies and green agendas.

We also need to think about the economic shock from coronavirus, which was felt not just in the UK but globally. We have to ensure we are opening up as many economic opportunities as possible right now. The Government can use long-term funding and their access to finance to back investment in the longer term, while creating jobs and economic growth in the here and now, when we need them.

Other successful renewable industries in the UK started out with help from Government and got themselves on a journey to free market support. With the right approach, an entire industry can develop in this country. As we have heard, the industry is confident that, after developing 30 sites with Government support, it will be able to stand on its own two feet.

There are other opportunities that we will discover as we develop this technology. Drilling at the Eden Project has found concentrations of lithium that are higher than any other concentrations of lithium elsewhere in the world. We might expect to find that in other parts of the UK.

The industry can create 10,000 direct jobs, through £1.5 billion of investment and deliver on levelling up across the UK. I know there is a willingness from the Minister and, as the Prime Minister explained at Prime Minister’s questions today, policy support from the Government. We need to take a step back and think about what is the cleanest, simplest and quickest way to get this industry going. The ask from industry around a tariff is the best way to do that. We may be able to look at the pots of money that are already available to deliver that. On that note, I will finish and again thank the Minister for the time she has given today, and before, in supporting this industry.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:53 pm, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank Owen Thompson for setting the scene and, in doing so, giving us the chance to participate in the debate. It is a pleasure to follow Dr Mullan, who is clearly knowledgeable on this subject.

Across the United Kingdom, we see a growth in businesses with methodologies and ways of harnessing renewable energy. There is an exhibition at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre about Northern Ireland’s centenary and about businesses in Northern Ireland. I was about to tell the hon. Member for Midlothian about one of those businesses, which is not geothermal but it is in the renewable sector, but he was called to speak and I did not get the chance to tell him much.

The business is not just about harnessing renewable energy, but storing it. It is called the Electric Storage Company and Chris Doherty, its programme manager, told me how it can galvanise renewable energy and store it in a battery system for such times as it can be used on the grid. Again, this is innovative, thought-provoking and workable. I have to say that, in all honesty, I do not have a lot of knowledge of what the hon. Member for Midlothian has presented today, but I like to learn. Even though I might be of an age, that does not mean that I do not want to learn. I learn something every day, and today, by listening to other speakers, especially the hon. Gentleman, I have learned a wee bit. I have also done a wee bit of research about geothermal energy in order the understand how it works.

I have always had a particular interest in green energy. As everyone knows, I represent the Strangford constituency, the door to which is the Strangford lough, which the constituency is named after and which used to have a SeaGen tidal turbine. At one stage, it was said to be large enough to meet the electricity needs of one large town or perhaps a couple of large villages close by. The Electric Storage Company has told me today that it is discussing how the sea turbine in Strangford lough can be put to better use. Queen’s University Belfast, through its biology station in Portaferry, has been instrumental in that process. This is about having really good ideas, being visionary for the future and making those possibilities real. With SeaGen, we have the potential to become less reliant on overseas production and more reliant on what God has given us—a reliable, twice-daily tide and strong undersea currents. The Electric Storage Company says that it is about harnessing nature’s energy, and that is also true of the project referred to by the hon. Gentleman.

Although we cannot write a blank cheque to fund research into renewable energy, we must still invest in producing energy that does not harm this beautiful country. Geothermal energy is one such approach and it has massive potential to reduce the impact on the countryside that we love. I am not as knowledgeable on the subject as the hon. Gentleman, but I am intrigued enough to want to know more and understand how it can be used to help the environment.

In the deep subsurface of the Earth, ground temperatures are no longer affected by the sun but result from heat that is generated from the Earth’s interior. That reminds me of the film, “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, which Members are probably familiar with. I am of a vintage that can remember when it first came out many years ago. That was science fiction, but today we are looking at things that are possible, and I believe that this is one such thing.

Ground temperatures increase with depth—around 2.7°C per 100 metre depths in the UK. The feasibility of extracting this heat depends on several factors, including the availability of feasible geology, whether the target temperature can be reached at economically drillable depths, and whether the geothermal source is located near areas of heating demand, such as cities. Jonathan Gullis, who has just left the Chamber, referred to coalmining, as did the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and others. The main party spokespersons will probably refer to it, too.

Extracting heat requires the drilling of deep boreholes of 1 km to 3 km for use in heating, and of up to 5 km for electricity generation. Deep geothermal plants can provide heat directly to high-temperature district heating networks without the need for a heat pump. Individual plants can provide heat for thousands to tens of thousands of households. Let us not underestimate the impact and possibilities of this particular energy resource. Although this seems to be the stuff of science fiction films, there are Members in this Chamber, including the Minister, who are blessed with the ability to make the resources meet people’s needs. We must give them the opportunity to do so.

The hon. Member for Midlothian referred to people in his area, which I will refer to towards the end of my speech. I told him earlier—and I meant it—that I am always impressed by the ingenuity across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Scotland has on many occasions given us food for thought on what we can use elsewhere. That is what I see in this project; it is a way forward.

The Library briefing, which is always helpful, has produced some interesting statistics on geothermal energy. In 2017, a study estimated that the UK had enough resource theoretically available to easily surpass all its energy demand in 2015. Wow—that is a big statement to make, but even if that is halfway true, it is something we cannot ignore. It has potential and possibility, and we need to chase it up.

The amount technically available was much smaller than the theoretical resource, of course, and recovery would depend on depths drilled and areas targeted, but there is potential, and we need more investigation of this matter to better gauge what we can get out of it and how we harness that.

Similarly, in 2018,

“a study estimated that the available heat from deep geothermal resources (sedimentary basins, ancient warm granites) and flooded mines”,

which some hon. Members have referred to, could be,

“equivalent to approximately 100 years heat supply for the entire UK.”

We have only ever had two mines that I am aware of in Northern Ireland, one a coal mine and one a salt mine, so our potential here may not be great, but there is potential and it cannot be ignored.

I have been excited by the plans to build a large-scale renewable energy park in Aberdeenshire, which the hon. Member for Midlothian referred to and which I know the SNP spokesperson, Ronnie Cowan, will mention as well—designed to deliver up to 200 MW of environmentally friendly power to the Scottish grid. I am anxious to see the results of that, but I am concerned, and I am happy to put this on record—I hope the hon. Member for Midlothian does not mind my saying so—that the funding for it is coming from Chinese investment.

I will not say I am against the idea of Chinese investment, but I suspect that everything China does has an ulterior motive. When it comes to this particular project, as I have said to the hon. Gentleman, who is also a friend and whom I support in many of his debates in this House, I believe we should be beholden to no one, especially not the Chinese. I was pleased today to see that we in this House have told the Chinese ambassador that if our MPs and peers cannot go to China, he cannot eat his sweet and sour pork in this House either. I am particularly pleased about that—maybe that is facetious, or maybe I digress, but it makes my point.

We must be able to resource these projects with British funding. I have seen plans for new energy formats coming to Northern Ireland, and there is a real fear of the unknown. The Government must lead the way in looking into this new way of doing things, so I look to the SNP spokesperson, the shadow Minister—Dr Whitehead—and ultimately I look forward to hearing from the Minister. I believe we have the potential to supply our own energy, relying on external influences, and we must invest in ourselves, in our potential and in every part of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—always better together, we can work forward together and do well together.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 3:03 pm, 15th September 2021

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Owen Thompson on securing this timely debate on the UK’s opportunity for geothermal energy extraction.

This topic is really important to me as the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central. We are a pioneer city, at the forefront of exploring the geothermal option. I am delighted that this debate places a spotlight on geothermal, which is more environmentally friendly than conventional fuel sources, provides a more reliable clean energy source than other renewable options and offers an operational lifespan of more than 100 years. In addition, geothermal supports the transferability of skills and jobs from the oil and gas sector and provides development opportunities in regions such as the midlands, bringing new jobs and investment to areas that do not currently benefit from renewables such as wind power.

Crucially, the technology supports our transition to net zero. As we look to reduce our carbon footprint through a circular economy based on the principles of reducing, reusing and recycling, it is fitting that Stoke-on-Trent is at the forefront of this movement. The Potteries, home of pots and pits, retains a huge underground maze of former mine tunnels. The coal from those mines fired the kilns and the steelworks, and blackened the skies across the city at the height of its heavy industrial past. We are now powering our city up again, but this time as part of a new green industrial revolution, reducing pollution by investing in improved public transport, growing our nature recovery network, reusing the infrastructure of a former polluting industry to deliver new, clean energy, and recycling the hot water within the mine tunnels through our district heat networks.

Several factors make Stoke-on-Trent an ideal location for the development of this technology. First, the area has ideal geological conditions. Its geothermal gradient, which shows how much the temperature increases as we dig deeper, is greater than expected due to an ancient volcano deep beneath the surface providing untapped potential. We are leading the way with the Stoke-on-Trent district heat network. I thank the Government for providing £20 million for this pilot project. The district heat network features 18 km of piping and has led to affordable and clean energy for a community in the city and the first dedicated skills academy.

The project led by GT Energy to develop a deep geothermal heat plant in Etruria Valley in the city already has planning permission. The development would be the first of its type in the UK and would comprise the initial drilling of two deep exploration boreholes to a depth of approximately 4,000 metres. I believe it will be the first in the world to feed into a district heat network. The proposed development has the potential to bring a host of benefits to the local area, including creating green economy skills and jobs, reducing carbon emissions by 11,000 tonnes per year and generating heat equal to the energy needs of around 4,000 homes.

The exciting project is shovel ready and could be weeks away from starting with the proper Government support. I am grateful to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for enabling Stoke-on-Trent City Council to create a procurement framework to engage with local suppliers of district heat networks. This provides the council with a crucial link to local companies that can complete the required work and enables best practice to be shared more widely as the market grows.

Fundamental to the development of the geothermal market is, as we have heard repeatedly, early Government support. Government support for this early stage technology will unlock private investment, support the industry’s development and reduce cost to consumers over time. Early Government support has been shown to work in other countries in developing geothermal markets by providing confidence to geothermal developers and their investors. With increasing project delivery, market confidence grows and projects become more cost effective and sustainable, requiring less Government intervention as the market matures.

We have heard that this has been the case in other countries such as France, which now has a more mature geothermal market that is cost effective without the need for ongoing Government support. I welcome the Government’s support for the sector through initiatives such as the heat investment network project. Can the Minister confirm that geothermal energy, as a low-carbon technology, will be within the scope of the new £270 million green heat network fund running from 2022 to 2025?

As we approach COP26 and call on our global partners to step up their commitments towards achieving net zero, it is right that we should consider how we can harness the UK’s potential. Does the Minister agree that shovel-ready projects, such as the geothermal project in Stoke-on-Trent, are vital in developing this key energy source ahead of other countries, further demonstrating our commitment to carbon reduction?

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

We come now to the Front-Bench speeches.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure) 3:08 pm, 15th September 2021

I thank my friend and colleague Owen Thompson for bringing forward this debate. As he said, it is not a new idea, but it is certainly a good one. As part of the mix of renewable energies, it must have its place. In every single speech I have heard the word “potential”, but we need to take it further. We need a road map, commitment and investment. From Lothian to Birkenhead, to Strangford, to Stoke-on-Trent—North and Central—and to Crewe and Nantwich, there is a hunger to see this succeed.

The scars that our landscape left behind after the decimation of the coal mining industry could finally pay a legacy, which would be a fitting tribute to generations of proud coal miners. As we transition from oil and gas, we must not let those skills be lost to foreign investment or simply discarded.

Today I am wearing my James Watt tie. He was a fellow Grenockian who has sometimes been wrongly credited with inventing the steam engine. What Watt did was look at ineffective technology and refine it—in his case, with the steam condenser. Hey presto! We had steam engines that were powerful, safe and practical. The industrial revolution was born. Bearing in mind the damage that that might have caused the planet, we may want to debate on another day whether that has been a good thing, but today I see those comparisons. The viability of geothermal heat has increased with every report that has been produced by the House of Commons Library since 2012. Technology that seemed to be just too expensive to be practical has become viable. Rather than add to the pollution, geothermal harnesses the Earth’s natural energy.

We have heard about a number of potential sources, but primarily it has been mine water. I want to add unused railway tunnels to the list, and not just because I have miles of them within my constituency of Inverclyde. Whenever a new technology comes along, there will inevitably be a cost associated with developing it, but I would venture that when it comes to clean, green renewable energy, we should factor into that the material cost to our planet if we do not develop clean, green renewable energy. We will get to a tipping point, when no amount of money, research or ingenuity will save our planet from overheating. That is the true cost of not investing in renewables now, and it is a cost that nobody wants to pay. In conclusion, I sincerely hope that the UK Government do not bury their heads in their sand, when we could be burying deep thermal bores into the ground instead.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:12 pm, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to reply to this afternoon’s debate on behalf of the Opposition.

I am in a particular position as far as geothermal energy is concerned. I am not standing up to say what a good idea geothermal energy would be for the future, if it were to be introduced, but to say what a good idea geothermal energy has been already. It has been introduced, and it has been running in my constituency since 1986. Indeed, in a former life, I was substantially responsible for getting the scheme into place in Southampton, with a little help from the then Department of Energy, which had drilled a test hole in Southampton to see how the water came up. The responsibility for capturing the water coming up, converting it to steam and putting it into a district heating scheme lay entirely with Southampton City Council, of which I was leader at the time. The results of that can be plainly seen by all. The water comes up at 74° Celsius and is therefore easily convertible into very high-grade heat and a substantial electricity production facility. Indeed, it produces something like 40 GWh of heat, and about 12 GWh of electricity, per year in and around Southampton—a heat network of about 18 km.

I am hardly likely to stand here this afternoon and say anything negative about geothermal energy. I congratulate every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate on their focused commitment to that form of energy and on their understanding of the processes, which leads them to bring that focused commitment. That is a testament to the support that there is across the House for getting that form of energy seriously on the map. Having mentioned my background in Southampton, I regret to say that the one in Southampton remains the only geothermal energy plant operating in the UK, from 1986 to this day.

I am very encouraged by the United Downs development, which is drilling at the moment, and the activity that is starting in Stoke-on-Trent, which is really encouraging for geothermal for the future. I am also encouraged by the developments mentioned by my hon. Friend Mick Whitley—the use of deep mine water and repurposed existing boreholes for geothermal purposes. All of those are encouraging developments.

The deep mine hot water that is available is essentially geothermal water that occurs in parts of the country where the heat of water is considerable, as it is in Southampton. That is what is coming into the bottom of those mines. It is a lucky accident of history that the mines were dug where that water is hottest. That is a tremendous resource that is beginning to be harnessed as water for steam and electricity production.

Geothermal is not a resource available uniformly across the country. We need to be clear about that, so that we do not get any Members from East Anglia advocating deep geothermal, because that would be a quixotic pursuit.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

I appreciate that there are the obvious sites that we know about; but I know from my discussions with people in the industry that they feel that the areas mapped and identified so far are an underestimate. There may be places where we think we cannot reach but where, as the technology develops, it will be possible to unlock sources.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The hon. Gentleman is right. According to what has already been mapped and known about via the British Geological Survey and other agencies, it so happens that every Member present this afternoon has a constituency right on top of an area of sedimentary laid-down rock associated with aquifers, all of which are ideal for deep geothermal exploitation. Jim Shannon is not actually on a sedimentary rock formation but is next door to one. His efforts could be directed at persuading his neighbouring Members of Parliament to get going on geothermal projects just down the road from his constituency.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Although I might not be able to claim specifically for Strangford, I can say that all of Northern Ireland should take advantage of where those opportunities are. This debate is about how we can all do it better together. If we can do that, we can all gain an advantage.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Indeed. The other point I would make about availability is that we are not just talking about sedimentary rocks. As we know from Cornwall, we are talking about hot rocks, granite batholith formations, which can extract heat just as effectively for geothermal energy. That is the geology lesson over and done with.

As hon. Members have mentioned, we have this tremendous resource in front of us in the UK. In a recent report, the Renewable Energy Association estimated that if we delivered, say, 12 heat projects per year over the next 30 years, the UK could expect to generate up to 50,000 GWh of heat annually by 2050 and about 400 GWe—a huge contribution, in particular to net zero energy extraction and use. As hon. Members have said, geothermal is about the cleanest energy configuration that we can think of. It is infinitely renewable and completely reliable, as it just carries on producing the heat and electricity for ever and a day once it is in place.

We have a tremendous resource, but we have heard about the frankly isolated projects going on in this country. As far as the development of geothermal is concerned, they continue to be isolated. Dr Mullan mentioned just how many projects are already under way in the rest of Europe—hundreds of projects in Germany, dozens of projects in France, a lot of projects in Italy. They are way ahead of us in exploiting this resource.

That is my particular concern. Over a number of years, we have dragged our feet on getting going on geothermal. I am sorry to say that the last incentive in Government support for geothermal energy development expired in March 2021, with the ending of the renewable heat incentive commercial and industrial element assistance. As far as I know, although the Minister might helpfully be able to disabuse me of what I am about to say, nothing else is planned for the immediate future. The Energy White Paper certainly made no mention of geothermal energy, other than an inset about some mine water extraction about halfway through. That is a terrible omission given the depth of the resource that we know we have, the relative ease of exploitation and the tremendous benefits that would come from such exploitation.

I want to say to the Minister—I hope and trust that she will still be the Minister at the end of this afternoon’s proceedings although, more likely, she will still be a Minister, but in a much more elevated position—assuming that I am still talking to her tomorrow, that when she goes back to the Department and looks at the progress of the heat and buildings strategy, which I think is still being discussed and not quite out yet, but almost ready to go, she should jump up and down, and thump on the table, and insist that the strategy contains a serious planning mention of the role that geothermal energy can play in the process over the next period. As we have heard this afternoon, it could play a tremendous role. It would be simply unthinkable if, over the next few years, we were not to exploit that resource to the best of our ability, because we need to—for net zero purposes, for clean energy purposes, and for local energy that does the business for local communities from what is absolutely under their feet as they go about their business.

I am sure that the Minister will be able to respond to me positively, to say that that is what she will do pretty immediately, at the end of our proceedings this afternoon; because the Opposition, at least, are wholly committed to the idea that geothermal should take its rightful place in the UK’s energy economy. I hope that the Minister not only shares that commitment, but is willing and able to make that commitment a reality within the next few years.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Clean Growth), The Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade 3:25 pm, 15th September 2021

Let me begin by congratulating Owen Thompson on securing this very important debate. It is so important that we focus on making the best use of all our renewable resources in the enormous challenge of achieving net zero by 2050. That is our contribution to the global challenge of reducing the climate change shocks that are affecting not only the most vulnerable countries around the world, but all of us in our own communities.

The Government are committed to decarbonising our energy system, while supporting our economic recovery from covid-19, with investment in existing, emerging and new low-carbon technologies and the creation of new green jobs. We have made significant progress on decarbonising electricity, and we continue to take action to decarbonise our transportation need. However, as highlighted by the Climate Change Committee, decarbonising our heat requirements is a significant challenge ahead of us.

With that in mind, we are supporting the development of low-carbon heat networks and looking at the best ways to harness low-carbon heat through developing capacity and capabilities in new sources, one of which could be geothermal energy—although, as Dr Whitehead said, geothermal energy is not new and is already proving its worth in Southampton. That said, the UK has limited access at the moment to the large naturally occurring geothermal resources that other countries, like Iceland, have tapped into much more intensively in order to decarbonise. There are challenges to overcome to exploit our geothermal energy to the degree that some other countries have.

Opportunities in the UK are perhaps more local and regional in nature. I thank the hon. Member for Southampton, as ever, for the science lesson. I enjoyed the geology lesson. That is new in our repartee over the last few months, so I thank him for that. It is a really important point: there are very clear regional and geological areas in which geothermal could be considered as one of a range of technologies that we might deploy to meet our climate change targets. A number of hon. Members have, of course, set out how that might be achieved in their own areas.

The Government support the development of geothermal projects, provided that it can be done at an acceptable cost and, of course, in an environmentally appropriate manner. It is always very helpful for me to understand where the best opportunities are to realise that potential and what creative things the industry might be doing to tackle the barriers and be innovative in the right environment.

One of the main barriers to deploying deep geothermal, of course, is the high capital cost needed to drill safely. There are also uncertainties around costs and revenues because of the inherent geological risk. As a result, many of the UK’s geothermal projects have so far had difficulty securing competitive financing, because investors lack experience of UK geothermal energy. The projects are therefore often seen as high risk compared to other technologies that are more established in the UK. This is a similar challenge to that seen with other technologies, such as solar energy or offshore wind, in their earlier years, so perhaps that should give succour and comfort to those championing this area of potential development.

My officials in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are engaging very closely with industry leaders to assess what options there are for reducing deep drilling and development costs and the methods of reducing and allocating risks so as to make best use of this energy source. Based on our experience of supporting local authorities to develop heat networks, through our heat network delivery unit, and on advice from the British Geological Survey and the Coal Authority, there is clear evidence that geothermal has really good potential as a renewable heat source for heat networks in many parts of the country.

Geothermal heating schemes are, however, all different. As we have heard this afternoon, they extract heat from rocks or water at different depths and hence different temperatures. This is not an entirely straightforward industry. It is not a uniform system; it is not a wind turbine or a solar panel. There are two broad approaches: deep geothermal schemes, where water is sent down to be heated by hot layers of rock before being extracted at high enough temperatures for use in district heating systems directly; and shallow geothermal, where the temperature of the water extracted needs to be boosted by a heat pump before it can be used for heating. Given the different nature of the technologies, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to bringing this technology forward, which is why my officials are working closely with industry partners.

The Government must balance their support for renewable heat sources with the reality that not all of these schemes will be economically viable with the technology available at the moment, given that the quantity and temperature of the extracted water can vary considerably from scheme to scheme, and there may be alternative renewable heat sources that are better suited to a specific community’s needs. Having said that, I recognise the potential role in supporting our heat decarbonisation objectives, and that is why geothermal heat projects are eligible for the Government’s heat network support.

The heat networks investment project has already supported two shallow geothermal projects in Gateshead and County Durham, with a total of £9.7 million of funding. These schemes will use geothermal heat from mine water to heat homes and non-domestic buildings. Geothermal power projects are also eligible to apply under the newly launched auction round four of our contracts for difference scheme for generation, which will open in December this year.

The Government have also invested £31 million in UK Geoenergy Observatories, which will provide a world-class infrastructure for a wide range of geoenergy-related research. Publicly run, owned and funded, each observatory will contribute to world-class science that puts the UK at the forefront of delivering clean energy at the scale required to help us achieve the net zero target that we have set ourselves by 2050.

I thank all Members who have spoken today and who continue to bring their enthusiasm and passion to the debate. Stoke-on-Trent is extremely well represented by amazing advocates in my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon)—the latter is a fantastic saleswoman who sees Stoke as the potential centre for the new geothermal revolution that is coming. We were hard-pressed not to know her passion, and I thank her for that.

I also want to thank Jim Shannon. It is always a pleasure to hear him in a debate. It was lovely to discover him in an arena where he is not as knowledgeable as many others in the room, but his longevity in the House usually gives him an advantage. I hope that he goes away with the challenge set by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test to see how he too can take up and champion geothermal across Northern Ireland and bring the opportunities there as we look to invest in them.

In answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, geothermal heat projects are expected to be in scope for the £270 million green heat network fund that will open in April next year. I hope that that helps those who are looking to bid in that space to get going now.

The debate has been really helpful. I find potential solutions exciting, and my officials are working hard to see how we can progress. It is always incredibly helpful to hear from colleagues. The enthusiasm of colleagues this afternoon in making a strong and passionate case for the future progress of the technology is inspiring. I look forward to working with them all in the weeks and months to come.

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Chief Whip 3:33 pm, 15th September 2021

We have seen from this afternoon’s contributions from a range of constituencies across the different nations of the UK that there is a genuine appetite to see the technology developed and to take advantage of the fact that this natural resource is sitting there in different ways in different constituencies. I thank the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), as well as my hon. Friend Ronnie Cowan, for their contributions. There is a genuine appetite for this and a real opportunity to benefit all our communities. Perhaps it is the “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” that the hon. Member for Strangford outlined.

It is encouraging to hear the actions that the Government are taking, although I did not hear about a specific strategy for geothermal, which is what I hoped for. Perhaps that will come and we can have yet another debate as more projects develop. The point was made several times about the impact on communities at the time of the pit closures and how they were hit hardest. They are the ones at the centre of the mine water projects who could have such a boost and a benefit from getting some of these projects up and running. We do not need to allow environmental damage from mine water pouring out into communities when we could actually be using it to heat new homes, schools and heat hospitals. Not just business benefits come from that, but a real community and public sector benefit.

Certainly, I would like to see a lot of ambition from Midlothian Council in trying to take advantage of the significant resource it sits on top of and to move forward with projects. It could be a real pioneer in taking the technology forward. Beyond that, I am sure we will all come back to this in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. It will be very interesting to see how the technology could be developed.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered opportunities for geothermal energy extraction.

Sitting suspended.