Southampton’s Geothermal Pursuit: A Success or Failure?

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A major geothermal heating project lies in the centre of Southampton – has it been worth it?

In the principled fight to reduce fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions in the UK, many different sources of energy have been trialled. Solar panels, wind turbines and nuclear power are the obvious options, but neither are without controversy – particularly the latter. Less obvious are hydroelectric and tidal power, with the former having limited useful application in the UK, and with the latter still being rather experimental.

But one form of energy generation, geothermal, is usually rejected as an unfeasible option in the UK. Geothermal energy generation involves pumping cold water into deep underground wells, in order to heat the water to run a turbine and generate electricity. On paper, geothermal seems like a great option; it’s a renewable, sustainable and carbon neutral energy source. It also creates minimal waste, and it is not generally weather dependent. However, it is often considered to only be efficient near to tectonic plate boundaries, which would render it useless in the UK.

Nesjavellir, a large scale geothermal plant in geologically-active Iceland, capable of producing over 1,000GWh of electricity a year. Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, although being near to plate boundaries indisputably improves the efficiency of geothermal power, there’s no reason why it can’t work in other places. While volcanic activity leads to greatly increased near-surface underground temperatures, there is still a significant temperature gradient underground in many places around the world.

Interestingly enough, to find examples of geothermal power in less geologically active places, there is no need to look further than Southampton’s city centre!

The use of geothermal power in the UK was first considered in the oil crisis of the early 1970s, although research decreased with oil prices after the crisis. Some research continued however, and in 1981, the Department of Energy found success in drilling a geothermal well in the Hampshire area. It was eventually deemed to not be a commercially successful option, and the Department of Energy discontinued research into it. However, Southampton City Council, then lead by Alan Whitehead (the current MP for Southampton Test), chose to take up the project themselves, with aims to make Southampton a ‘self-sufficient city’.

In 1987, drilling for the well started in the city centre. The well draws water from an aquifer 1800m under the surface, at a temperature of 76oC. The system is contained under a red corrugated building (pictured above) next to WestQuay and IKEA. It provides 13GWh of energy a year, and helps to provide the heating for several buildings, including WestQuay, the Civic Centre, and Royal South Hants Hospital. The amount of energy the system supplies is relatively low considering the amount of research and money put into developing it, but it is still considered as an efficient method of heating several buildings in the city centre around 30 years later!

With that in mind, as far as I can tell, Southampton’s very own geothermal project has been a success. To date, there has still been very little further research and development into the practical use of geothermal energy in the UK. There has been a small amount of research in Cornwall, and a similar system to Southampton’s is currently being developed for use in Stoke-on-Trent. Despite this, there’s evidence that geothermal has the potential to be able to supply a fairly significant portion of the UK’s energy and heating needs, and increased use and research would surely decrease the cost.

While there are several methods of sustainable energy sources that can be implemented in the UK to help replace the use of fossil fuels, it seems clear to me that perhaps geothermal power is an option that shouldn’t be overlooked.

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