Geothermal heat from coalfields: a ‘green’ revolution?

Sooner rather than later all energy users will be forced to change their source of energy to ones that do not involve fossil fuels. On average, 84% of household energy consumption is for space heating and hot water. Reducing domestic greenhouse gas emissions must replace the current dominance of coal, natural gas and oil in keeping ourselves warm and clean. One widely suggested solution is the use of heat pumps to ‘concentrate’ the solar energy that is temporarily stored in air or in the soil and rock just beneath our homes and gardens: air- and ground-source heating systems. Heat pumps rely on overcoming the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as do refrigerators and air conditioners. The Law implies that hot things always cool down; that is, energy cannot move ‘of its own accord’ from a cooler source to a warmer destination. But reversing the natural flow of heat energy is possible. To achieve this involves work in some form. There are several kinds of heat pumps powered by electricity, the simplest using a vapour compression cycle, as in refrigeration, which ‘pumps’ heat out of a fridge interior or a room. So, warm air is emitted to the outside world. Reverse the flow and the pump becomes a device that captures heat from a cold source – either a gas or a fluid – and delivers it for a domestic or industrial use.

In the case of a ground-source heat pump, the energy delivered also includes geothermal heat flowing from deep in the Earth: ultimately from radioactive decay of unstable isotopes bound up in rocks and the minerals they contain. At the surface, this supply is far less than solar heating. Yet, because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics it flows from a much hotter source: the Earth’s mantle. The deeper down, the hotter it gets. Beneath most of the continental surface temperature increases at between 15 to 35°C per kilometre. Without surface air being circulated to the deepest parts of mines it would be impossible to work in them. I remember as a school student visiting the deepest level of Maltby Main coal mine in South Yorkshire. Because my school was co-educational, our guide shouted ahead to the miners that women were coming – these miners normally worked in just helmet, boots and a jock strap! Dozens of them rushed frantically to find their trousers. Maltby Main’s shafts reached almost a kilometre below the surface and without ventilation the air temperature would have been more than 50°C. As it was, it was well above 30 degrees

As well as methane (‘fire damp’), CO2 (‘choke damp’) and roof collapse, one of the main hazards of coal mining is flooding by groundwater. When operational, before the Conservative governments of the 1980s and early 90s set about destroying deep-coal mining in Britain, all mines had massive pumps to remove water from their deepest levels or ‘sumps’. It is hazardous stuff, being highly acidic and rich in dissolved metals – including arsenic in some areas – as well as being warm: a low-temperature hydrothermal fluid. In many cases such water seeps to the surface from the now flooded mine workings, and precipitates brightly coloured iron hydroxides. Most of the abandoned British coalfields are plagued by such minewater escaping to the surface. Untreated it contaminates surface water, soils and sediments, posing threats to vegetation, wild life and people. Yet, it has considerable potential as a heat source, especially for community heating systems based on large-scale heat pumps (Farr, G. et al. 2020. The temperature of Britain’s coalfields. Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, v. 54, article qjegh2020-109; DOI: 10.1144/qjegh2020-109).

Pollution of South Esk river near Edinburgh by water from old coal-mine workings (Credit: EdinburghLive, 11 June 2020)

For decades, geothermal energy has been touted as a near-ideal renewable, carbon-free resource, using natural hot-spring systems in volcanically active areas, such as Iceland and New Zealand, from areas of unusually high heat flow over highly radioactive granite intrusions or from very deep sedimentary aquifers as exploited in parts of the Paris Basin. But in Britain various optimistic projects have arisen and then faded away. All relied on pumping surface water down boreholes to depths that achieve high temperatures, returning it to the surface at around 60°C to the surface and then piping it to users: very expensive. About a quarter of the population live above the former coalfields of Britain. Around 2.2 million gigawatt hours of geothermal heat are currently stored in flooded mine workings, with the possibility of further expansion. The UK Coal Authority has about 40 minewater pumping stations aimed at reducing pollution, which remove 3,000 l s-1 at an average temperature of around 9-18°C. Expressed in terms of energy content this amounts to 63 MW if recovered. But this is just scratching the surface of the potential for large-scale district heating based on heat pumps, such as that planned at Seaham, County Durham to heat 1500 new homes. Community heating and wastewater treatment can be combined for all the former coal mining areas in Central Scotland, the North of England and Midlands and South Wales where population densities are still very high

See also: Lane, A.2021. How flooded coalmines could heat homes. BBC Future 7 July 2020. Taylor, M. 2021. Abandoned pits of former mining town fuel green revolution. The Guardian, 10 August 2021.

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