United Kingdom

Hot rocks could meet supply heat and power to millions of UK homes

A new independent technical report on the potential to generate heat and electricity in the UK from deep geothermal has been published this week by renowned engineering consultants Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM). It finds that deep geothermal resources have the potential to produce up to 20% of UK electricity and heat for millions of homes.
Hot rocks could meet supply heat and power to millions of UK homes

While the UK is not currently synonymous with geothermal power having very limited capacity in place, the region does boast widely spread resources around the UK with ‘hotspots’ in Cornwall, Weardale, Lake District, East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Cheshire, Worcester, Dorset, Hampshire, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The SKM report is therefore timely, as some renewable energy experts call for more to be done to exploit the UK’s indigenous geothermal resources before importing power from elsewhere. Indeed, on the same day the SKM report was published revealing the astounding potential of the UK’s deep geothermal resource for heat and power, Energy Minister Charles Hendry signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Iceland which could see the UK importing sizeable volumes of Iceland’s geothermal power before looking to tap into the geothermal resources it has on its own doorstep.

Keeping it at home

“While we welcome greater collaboration on renewable energy, it is important that the UK government doesn’t overlook the UK’s own deep geothermal resource, which could supply up to 20% of electricity needs and the majority of our heat needs,” warns the Renewable Energy Association’s Head of External Affairs, Leonie Greene. “Not only is it cost effective to develop our own capacity, it provides energy security by protecting us from instability in international energy markets, and it keeps jobs and revenues in the UK economy.

“With the RO banding review decisions imminent, we are urging the Government to back British engineering, and ensure that deep geothermal gets similar support under the RO to other exciting early-stage renewables like wave and tidal power,” she adds.

The SKM report has been published as the geothermal power industry awaits the Renewables Obligation (RO) Banding Review. This will determine whether or not the Coalition Government will back the UK industry. The industry has been shocked by initial proposals to freeze support for deep geothermal power at 2 ROCs, a level too low to stimulate domestic investment. Deep geothermal power is a new technology in the UK and it requires similar support to wave and tidal in its initial development phase. The sector is now growing rapidly internationally and support in the UK must be comparable to other countries in order to attract investment.

On account of the exploration risk inherent with geothermal projects, targeted support at the exploration drilling phase has the potential to stimulate the industry much more cost effectively than high electricity revenue alone. SKM’s report states that: “risk reduction support is the most critical in developing a cost effective large utilisation of the geothermal resources in the UK. This is particularly needed to enable the early development of sedimentary aquifers for direct heat use as this offers the potential for the most significant and early contribution to meeting the UK commitments to the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive.”

Industry must not be left out in cold

“We don’t want to be left out of a global industry which is estimated to be worth £30 billion by 2020. We could be at the forefront of this industry given the strength of British engineering skills. If the UK wants to seize a share of this booming global market we must prove our competence at home. Clearly investment at home could also go a long way to meeting our future energy needs cleanly and safely,” states Dr Ryan Law, Chair of the Renewable Energy Association’s Deep Geothermal Group.

Adequate support for the domestic deep geothermal industry will foster valuable synergies with the oil and gas industry with potentially very large commercial rewards. The neglect of deep geothermal power in energy policy is surprising because the Prime Minister himself outlined before the election the strong jobs and security reasons for supporting its expansion.

Tim Smit, a passionate supporter of the industry, writes in his foreword to the SMK report that “every politician of whatever hue should read this report because it is much more than a case for siloed activity to build a power or heat plant; it is the platform for the birth of a new industry”.

Smit, who is planning to build a geothermal heat and power station at the Eden Project in southwest England, believes the UK needs to renew its vision for its economy. “Deep geothermal is part of that vision; for a small investment today we could be creating something that our grandchildren will thank us for.”

The UK industry has only around half the levels of support seen in Germany and Switzerland. As a result of support in Germany, the deep geothermal industry now employs 6,000 people and has attracted €4 billion of investment.

The Renewable Energy Association estimates the increase in costs associated with raising support for geothermal power to match levels proposed for wave and tidal will be less than £11 million per annum.

The support needs for deep geothermal heat are within a similar range to other renewable heat technologies. A dedicated tariff for deep geothermal heat is expected in the forthcoming RHI Phase 2 consultation this September for implementation next summer. Again, the associated financial commitment is modest – the REA estimates the additional annual cost of increasing the level of RHI for deep geothermal heat under the RHI will be £1.3 million.

“The investment needed to kick-start this very promising industry is very modest indeed. Isn’t this exactly the kind of investment the UK Government should be making today to secure our future prosperity?” stresses Leonie Greene.

“With the right skills and supporting mechanisms in place, the resulting energy production could make a significant contribution towards achieving the UK’s sustainable energy needs as well as enhancing the UK’s capabilities in sustainable energy,” concludes the report’s author, Tim Jackson, a Senior Geothermal Engineer at SKM.

[Inset: The Eden Project, a green theme park in Cornwall with the world’s largest greenhouse, will be entirely powered by geothermal in the future. What’s more, it is estimated there is enough geothermal power under Cornwall alone to power 10% of UK homes.]

For additional information:

Renewable Energy Association

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