Sustainable Energy

In the northeast of England, former coal mines could soon be turned into a geothermal energy project

Key Points
  • The Hebburn Colliery project has gained preliminary approval for funding from the European Regional Development Fund.
  • As a source of power, coal's importance, in the U.K. at least, is fading.
Tomekbudujedomek | Moment | Getty Images

Plans are being formed to turn abandoned coal mines in the northeast of England into a renewables project that will harness geothermal energy to heat buildings.

In a statement Tuesday, South Tyneside Council said its cabinet would be asked to approve the appointment of a main designer for the project, which will draw geothermal energy from flooded mines at the old Hebburn Colliery, next week.

Described by the U.S. Department of Energy as a "vital, clean energy resource," geothermal energy refers to heat from under the Earth's surface which can be used to produce renewable energy.

The Hebburn Colliery project has already gained preliminary approval for funding worth £3.5 million ($4.32 million) from the European Regional Development Fund. South Tyneside Council is collaborating with both the Coal Authority and Durham University on the initiative, which amounts to £7 million in total. 

Councillor Joan Atkinson, who is South Tyneside Council's lead member for area management and community safety, said the scheme was expected to "deliver a reduction of 319 tonnes of carbon emissions a year, which will make it a key component in our drive to make the council carbon neutral by 2030."

While the Hebburn Colliery was abandoned in 1932, the decline of coal mining across the U.K. as a whole has been a long process that has hit many communities hard in terms of job losses and societal change.

As a source of power, coal's importance — in the U.K. at least — is also fading. According to the government, Britain's "reliance on coal for electricity" has fallen from 70% in 1990 to under 3% today.

Provisional statistics released by the government at the end of March showed that electricity provided by coal-fired generators dropped by nearly 60% in 2019 compared to the previous year.

According to the figures, the 6.9 terawatt hours of electricity supplied from coal-fired generators in 2019 represented a record low. The Energy Trends report on U.K. electricity put this down to plant closures and coal-generation becoming "less economically favourable" than gas-fired generation.

On a larger scale, last December the International Energy Agency said that cheap natural gas had "shattered coal's competitiveness in the European Union in 2019."

Already, 2020 has seen several coal facilities in Europe close their doors. Two coal-fired facilities in the U.K., operated by SSE and RWE, shut down on the same day at the end of March, while Austria's last operational coal-fired power station closed last week. In February, energy firm Drax said coal-fired electricity production at the U.K.'s largest power plant was expected to end in March 2021.