The first geothermal plant in the UK could be a reality as soon as 2020 if a multimillion-pound fundraising drive for a pioneering project to produce power from hot rocks several kilometres under the ground in Cornwall succeeds.
The £18million United Downs Deep Geothermal Power project near Redruth has already secured £13m in public funding, £10.6m from the European Regional Development Fund and £2.4m from Cornwall county council.
A £5million bond has therefore been set up to raise the remainder via a crowdfunding platform.
Ryan Law, managing director of Geothermal Engineering Ltd, the UK company behind the project, said: “The big problem is because nothing has been done in the UK before, it’s quite high risk. Finding funding for that risk is extremely difficult.”
Investors can expect a 12 per cent return on the bond, which has an 18-month term, and will have their capital returned to them if the geothermal plan does not go ahead.
Geothermal plants involve deep holes drilled to reach underground hot rocks. Water is then pumped down, heated and returned to the surface to generate electricity or provide heating. Cornwall’s extensive granite means it has long been seen as the most promising part of the UK for the technology.
Drilling should begin in the first quarter of 2018 and take around five months as Geothermal Engineering Ltd drill a well 2.5km down, followed by a second deeper one of 4.5km, creating a circuit for water to be pumped down the shorter well and return up the other. If all goes as planned, the Redruth operation could be operational in 2020.
The amount of power the wells are expected to produce will be small, at a capacity of 1-3 megawatts (enough to power 1,500-4,500 homes), similar to a single onshore wind turbine, however geothermal has the advantage of being able to provide constant power if needed.
Chris Goodall, an energy expert and author, said “Energy independence for Cornwall is a realistic, cost-effective objective for the county council. This is a first-rate project.”
Tony Batchelor, known as the grandfather of geothermal in Cornwall for his test research and drilling in the county during the 1970s and 1980s, told the Guardian: “This £18m is basically our chip in the game. Then we look at delivering bigger and better projects.”
Ultimately, geothermal could provide as much as 1,000 megawatts of capacity, said Batchelor, an adviser to Geothermal Engineering Ltd and chairman of Earth sciences consultancy Geoscience. While not a huge amount nationally, it would be significant for Cornwall.
However, Goodall cautioned that this latest effort at making geothermal work in Cornwall was by no means guaranteed.
“Pretty much everyone agrees there is a lot of heat down there. But one of the reasons projects have struggled to get funding is that it’s highly fractured and it’s not a given [that it will work]. No one has yet been prepared to put in the highly risky capital to do this,” he said.
Bob Egerton, a Cornwall councillor, said he was sceptical about how big the resource actually was but that it was important to try to exploit it.
“It is a bit of a gamble, but ultimately we hope it will pay off,” he said. “The more we can produce from these sorts of resources rather than hydrocarbons has got to be a good thing.”
Active Geothermal plants would be a wonderful addition to our energy mix providing clean energy and in particular heat energy to local communities. Although the initial cost is quite high for the energy return the path this could set us on is worth the risk.
As the aim to move further away from energy via hydrocarbons and actively seek to reduce our carbon emissions projects such as these play an important part in expanding our energy mix. No one source would be able to completely replace hydrocarbons and it would be folly to pursue such an ideal even if we could.
We require a range of clean renewable sources as well as suitable storage to ensure we all can benefit from a secure energy future.