Net Zero Geothermal Research for District Infrastructure Engineering (NetZero GeoRDIE)

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of Natural & Environmental Sciences


The UK is committed to become a low-carbon economy, with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. To do this will require fuel switching, for example from fossil fuel power to renewable energy sources. In the UK the main source of emissions from the residential and public sector in 2018 was the use of natural gas for heating. Due to the diversity of heat demand by consumers, which varies with time/season and in magnitude, no single approach will provide the optimum solution.

Geothermal heat has been widely recognised to have the potential to make significant regional contributions to decarbonising heating in the UK, but currently deep geothermal and heat pumps account for just 5.2% of renewable energy sources. This project will investigate the use of closed loop single well geothermal systems as a viable alternative in scenarios where traditional open loop geothermal systems are not feasible. It particularly addresses the possibility of using wells drilled for other purposes, that might have failed in their original objectives, as sources of geothermal energy, thus mitigating some of the costs of their construction. Uniquely, the research will use, in Newcastle city centre, an existing 1.6km deep borehole and adjacent large instrumented building as a research facility, and integrate the research as part of whole energy system approach. Modelling will couple the heating/cooling needs of new urban buildings with an understanding of the performance of a single well geothermal system so that those demands are met.

The project will address fundamental challenges in 1) heat abstraction and storage; 2) the engineering challenges of integrating geothermal energy to whole energy systems, and 3) regulatory and legal implications of closed loop systems and subsequent liabilities. The proposed research sets out to mitigate the technical and economic risks associated with deep UK geothermal energy for heating and cooling, and so to facilitate its future adoption to enable zero carbon targets to be reached.

Planned Impact

To achieve its goals, this project necessarily involves close working relationships between different stakeholders. We have experience of doing this; having in partnership completed the deep borehole at the Helix site, Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University provided the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), at their request, with a road map to use in addressing queries from local authorities interested in geothermal energy.

The proposed research develops and extends this dialogue, by enabling fundamental research to be carried out by the academic partners (RAs and academic staff) in partnership with (a) companies working on supplying geothermal energy (EnviroCentre, GEON), (b) service companies looking to develop new markets beyond those associated with fossil fuels (Schlumberger), (c) integrated energy system suppliers (Engie), (d) local authorities (Newcastle City Council, South Tyneside Council, North of Tyne Combined Authority) and (e) the regulator (Environment Agency). Although not a project partner, BEIS has asked to be kept informed of results from this project.
To achieve impact, we will address and integrate societal, economic, regulatory and knowledge aspects of impact.

Societal: through wide and varied stakeholder engagement, we will listen to stakeholders from within and outside the project team, taking on board their requirements, distilling to identify key concerns, and reporting back how the project is addressing these.

Economic: our project partners have strong economic interests in geothermal energy and its use. We will work closely with them to (a) supplement the modelling work carried out as part of the research funded by EPSRC with additional downhole tests at Newcastle Helix, (b) publish our EPSRC-funded research outputs openly to facilitate wide international adoption, and (c) identify liabilities that arise from regulation and their economic implications.

Regulatory: we will work closely with the Environment Agency to ensure that all work done at Newcastle Helix complies with current regulation, at the same time identifying gaps that future revised regulation should address. The modelling will be particularly relevant to developing regulation of ownership of geothermal resources, which at present is completely inadequate.

Knowledge: working with people at all stages in the education pipeline, we will develop materials and use innovative digital platforms to inform children, students and adults about geothermal energy, how it can be exploited, and what its advantages/disadvantages are - so that informed decisions can be made in connection with its adoption to help achieve zero carbon energy. This activity will be underpinned by publication in leading peer-reviewed open access journals.

Our Pathway to Impact includes specific tasks that are substantial, for which we have requested resource. These focus on the regulatory aspects associated with repurposing wells that might (for example) have been designed for hydrocarbon exploration/production, and the liabilities that might arise. Definition of future liability is essential to enable commercial project risk to be understood and then costed, and so our Pathway to Impact focuses on this key enabling factor. It equally addresses public understanding of geothermal energy, which underpins decision making in the planning process that enables (a) local authorities to develop strategies for energy use/provision and (b) commercial projects to go forward to construction.
Description We have shown that the heat that can be obtained from a deep borehole maybe sufficient to match the heat demand for a modern large building, and that variation in demand can be accommodated. Our investigation of the regulatory framework for heat from such sources shows that there are gaps in current policy that need to be addressed to enable the use of zero-carbon geothermal energy to be exploited commercially.
Exploitation Route Local authorities and large estate owners (such as the NHS, universities, councils) will find the outcomes of this funding useful.
Sectors Construction,Energy,Environment

Description The work informs our engagement especially with the North East LEP, also local and national government in Scotland. Work funded by the MoD draws on our findings.
Sector Energy
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services