Abandoned pits of former mining town fuel green revolution
Project in Seaham, County Durham, will use water from mine shafts to heat 1,500 new homes
Kevin Shaw remembers Seaham in its mining heyday, when the three pits in the town provided thousands of jobs and the network of red-brick terrace houses overlooking the sea were packed with miners and their families.
“It was a totally different place then all right,” says the 63-year-old looking out from a seafront cafe across a shimmering North Sea. “It was a very strong community, everyone had a connection to the mines … coal wagons would rattle across this road and down to the docks.”
But the last pit closed in the early 1990s. Now, in a nondescript warehouse on an industrial estate on the edge of Seaham a new chapter in the town’s industrial history is being written. A garden village with 1,500 homes, a primary school and shops is being planned on nearby fields: the heating and hot water for the entire development will come from water pumped from an abandoned mine shaft nearby.
Chris Myers, the Durham county council regeneration officer, says: “It is really exciting to think that these are the coalmines which effectively powered the Industrial Revolution and now they are going to power the green revolution … it is a cracking thing to be involved in.”
The idea is simple. Former coalmines get flooded and the water needs to be pumped out and cleaned to stop it contaminating drinking supplies. When it is brought to the surface it has been warmed by the Earth – in the case of the Dawdon pit at Seaham up to about 19-20C.
Under the plans, heat pumps would increase the temperature to 55/60C – warm enough to piped into homes and provide a constant source of heat and hot water.
The entire process would produce almost no carbon and a steady stream of cheap, reliable heating for homes and businesses.
“It is a genuine win-win that could transform not just Seaham, not just County Durham, but huge parts of northern England,” says Myers.
In the town’s pomp thousands of miners used to descend a kilometre underground into the mine shafts every day before working narrow seams stretching out under the North Sea. Now the water comes up into a warehouse on top of the old pit shaft.
Here it is possible to feel the heat – and energy – coming from the water. “You can feel it,” says Myers as he comes out into the sunshine and removes his hard hat. “That is it, that is the energy we are harnessing.”
The Coal Authority, which is responsible for the UK’s 23,000 abandoned deep coalmines, believes the potential of this geothermal heating is immense. It says 25% of people in the UK live on top of former coalmines and argues that refocusing the UK’s coalfields for a zero carbon, geothermal future could be transformative for energy and former mining communities.
“It’s got huge potential, it is accessible and the technology already exists,” says Charlotte Adams, the manager of mine energy and innovation at the Coal Authority. “We have already got 80 sites where the water comes to the surface and that produces around 100 megawatts of heat that is currently not being used.”
She said funding was available for local authorities to explore whether abandoned mines in their areas were suitable, with 40 projects already under way and more councils coming forward all the time.
Advocates also say the plans would create an industry of technicians and engineers needed to build and service the new infrastructure.
Prof Jon Gluyas, the executive director of the Durham Energy Institute at Durham University, agrees it has huge potential.
“This is a real opportunity and since we built our houses where we mined coal there is a good match between potential supply and demand. This could play a big role in zero carbon energy from Glasgow to the north-east, Nottingham to Kent.”
Back on the seafront in Seaham, as children play among the rock pools on the beaches that stretch north from the town and the cafes on the redeveloped dockside bustle with holidaymakers and locals, Shaw reflects on how much has changed.
“When we were kids the beaches around the pit were black with the coal, but just look at it now.”
Shaw first went down Dawdon colliery on a school trip as a 16-year-old before going on to work as a firefighter in the town for more than 20 years. He is now a local councillor and says being in the vanguard of a new energy revolution would confirm Seaham’s fightback from the dark days after the pits closed.
“This place was built on coal and mining and people were proud of that. What we are doing now means that the legacy of over 100 years of mining can be used again … and that will mean a lot to the town.”