From the industrial revolution to the green revolution

In what used to be the industrial northeast heartland of Britain, the dirty energy legacy of the Gateshead coal mines that powered factory steam engines during the Industrial Revolution has been transformed into leadership in today’s green energy revolution, through the Gateshead mine water project..

Originally known as the Hebburn Minewater Project, the £7.7 million ($10.4 million) project draws geothermal energy from abandoned flooded mines in the former Hebb/urn Colliery, which opened in 1792 and shut down in 1932. The coal workings, 150 metres below the town centre, have been generating localized, secure, low-carbon heat since spring 2023.

The Coal Authority, which owns and manages the disused coal-mining infrastructure on behalf of the government, thinks the project offers a model for other UK coalfield communities.“Many of our largest towns and cities grew due to their former coal reserves, leaving a good match between areas of heat demand and areas of disused mines,” it said.  

Gateshead has operated its own District Energy Network (DEN) since 2018 through its wholly owned Gateshead Energy Company, but the water in the network used to be heated solely by gas-powered Combined Heat and Power engines. Now mine water will provide up to half the heat that is needed by buildings connected to the network. 

The energy supplies 350 high-rise homes, the Glasshouse International Centre for Music, Gateshead College, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and several office buildings, including a large manufacturing site. Future additions will include 270 private homes, a new conference centre and a hotel development.

It has been estimated that the Gateshead project will save 72,000 tonnes of CO2 over 40 years which equates to annual savings of about 1,800 tonnes of CO2.

The mine water, at 15 degrees C, is passed through a heat exchanger which transfers heat, via a heat pump, into a network of underground pipes that supply hot water at 80 degrees C to homes and buildings. The mine water is returned to the ground once the natural heat is taken.

Brand new £4m urban solar parks, which are some of the UK’s largest, provide green electricity to run the mine water heating system, as well as other Council buildings.

The Coal Authority is now working with other local authorities and key partners across England, Scotland and Wales to unlock the full potential of this mine heat resource. “This is a major step forward in the mission to decarbonize heat and a real-world example of how former mining communities could benefit from using the historical industrial coal mining infrastructure to create an eco-friendly future,” the authority says.

Springhill, N.S., once known for its coal mining disasters, has become a green energy pioneer by using geothermal energy from water heated in an abandoned coal mine. The energy is used to heat several of the town’s buildings. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

In Scotland, work is underway in Glasgow and Rutherglen, which had some of the busiest coal mines, to look at how the water that has flooded those mines can be used to provide decarbonized heating to buildings. A dozen boreholes drilled into the site and fitted with sensors in summer 2021 are providing a clearer image of the network of flooded tunnels.  

The UK is following in the footsteps of other European countries. The world’s first mine water power station, opened in the Dutch city of Heerlen in 2008, is now connected to around 500 houses and commercial facilities – cutting the area’s carbon emissions from heating by almost two thirds.

A similar project is underway in the Asturias region of northern Spain, where flooded coal shafts are heating (and cooling) a hospital, university and numerous other buildings. “Geothermal energy has given a second life to our coal mines,” says Asturias’s director of energy María Belarmina Díaz Aguado.

But the first use of the technology took place in Canada. In 1989, Springhill, Nova Scotia, started using the heat from its dormant coal mines to heat industrial buildings using the estimated 4 million cubic metres of water that had flooded an abandoned mine under the town. 

Last December, the province of Nova Scotia invested money to research the possibility of expanding the concept to provide low-carbon energy to other towns located near mines, Quirks and Quarks reported earlier this year. 

An earlier study in 2006 identified numerous sites that might be able to take advantage of this kind of thermal energy source, including Noranda copper mine near Murdochville, Que.; Con gold mine under Yellowknife; Wellington coal mine under Nanaimo, B.C.; two sites in Sudbury, Ont. and several sites in Nova Scotia.


Dirty old mines could be a source of clean new energy CBC Quirks and Quarks, Jan. 20, 2023

Flooded and forgotten: How Europe’s disused coal mines are successfully being used to heat our homes, Oct. 14, 2023

Coal mines transformed society. Now, their flooded remains could heat the homes of the future CNBC, Feb. 14, 2022

Hundreds of homes in northern England now use coal mine water heat Mining, Oct. 14, 2023

Cover image: Karl Gerber/Pexels