Geothermal energy from abandoned mines is literally just below our feet, and waiting to be capitalised upon - Douglas Chapman

Scotland is in an excellent position to take advantage of this huge potential in our geothermal mine water heat

Scotland needs accelerated action on the energy, cost of living and climate crises. If I had one wish for 2024, it would be for delivery on this unholy trinity of emergencies with pragmatic solutions to make the most of our abundant natural resources, as well as the expertise and potential of our workforce.

While the UK Government use nuclear power potential as a political football in Scotland, there are other low carbon energy sources that we could employ for a fraction of the price of new nuclear and a lot faster delivery while providing good, clean energy to our local communities at a fair price. One such source is geothermal energy, or mine water heat, taking advantage of the rich seam of former mines across the midland layer of Scotland where much of our population reside and where many communities are suffering due to huge hikes in energy prices.

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Geothermal energy is literally just below our feet, with heat from water in abandoned mines across Scotland ready and waiting to be capitalised upon. These former mines are managed by the Coal Authority who estimate that at least one quarter of UK homes are sited on above these coalmines. Accessing the mine water heat through drilling boreholes and passing water through a heat pump into district heating systems could provide up to a 100 years’ worth of energy for our coalfield homes, energy that is reliable and consistent whatever the weather and with a very low carbon footprint.

I was fortunate enough to visit a mine water scheme recently at Gateshead in the North of England. It is an inspirational scheme, turned around in three years by the dynamism and expertise inherent in their delivery team and transformational for the 350 council owned homes, Gateshead College, the Baltic Arts Centre and several offices that now have access to geothermal energy. These homes and organisations also pay less than the market rate for their energy thanks to the Public Energy Company set up by the local Council which manages the heat and has worked closely with the Coal Authority and private contractors to get it up and running.

Of course, the up-front costs are significant but in other countries like the Netherlands and France, governments have supplied much of the capital and have managed the risks, while in Germany a stable regulatory framework has provided the security to develop new geothermal schemes. In the face of myriad crises, we need to catch up with our European neighbours and maximise opportunity for our workforce.

The Just Transition Commission recently published their annual report entitled ‘Time to Deliver’ highlighting the lack of progress on a just transition in the face of increasing fuel poverty. The Commission cited the necessity for “policy development and delivery right across government, with devolved competencies exercised to their fullest extent”. ‘Time to Deliver’ argues for public procurement as a “catalyst” for change at scale, to “(embed) social value” and achieve “high quality, secure employment, (and) fair work”, bolstering “local supply chains, equitable ownership and meaningful community engagement and participation.”

Geothermal is an area where our devolved competencies can be exercised to their fullest extent by using our powers on heat and planning. Earlier this year I was delighted to co-author a discussion paper with the Common Weal think tank and Glasgow Caledonian University which proposed ‘Re-Booting the National Energy Company for Scotland with Geothermal Energy’. My co-authors and I argue in this paper that Scotland is in an excellent position to take advantage of this huge potential in our geothermal mine water heat. Harnessing this local energy for local people at a low cost through a National Energy Company builds on our political commitments inherent in the Scottish Government’s ‘Energy Strategy and Just Transition’ proposals to focus on social justice, sustainability, resilience, and fairness, where we maximise the public benefit of renewables for communities. We are also fortunate enough to have impressive academic and specialist research facilities exploring geothermal potential with back up from Scottish Government funding sources.

It's the ideal vehicle to put our Just Transition ambitions into practice by using the existing skill set within our fossil fuel industry in terms of transferrable expertise. The potential for new jobs could benefit communities in these coalfield areas, communities that must be at the heart of any plans going forward. ‘Time to Deliver’ highlights the importance of meaningful engagement and this is also an essential part of our discussion paper, where local communities are stakeholders in their own energy sources and integral to the development of new sites.

A National Energy Company is hugely popular with the public, especially as we see private companies rake in enormous profits off the back of volatility in the energy market. The push for a NEC in Scotland has stalled but can be rekindled with some clever strategizing and sustainable use of our natural resources, in this instance taking geothermal as a starting point, but also in terms of reaching out to more rural communities across Scotland to find the best bespoke renewable energy for their area. After all, the Welsh Government are working on their Public Energy Company with a focus on wind and using a blueprint devised by the Common Weal – why not in Scotland too?

It all boils back down to delivery - delivery for our citizens, for our workers and for the planet. As the MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, I’m keen to kickstart the process here with a pilot geothermal project run in a similar vein to the Gateshead Public Energy Company to provide low cost, local energy to local people. Scaling up such a geothermal project for the nation could be both transformational and serve as a fitting tribute to coalfield communities so unfairly marginalised by their industrial past.

Now, that’s what I call a good resolution for 2024.

Douglas Chapman is SNP MP for Dunfermline and West Fife



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