Mining was once the beating heart of the seaside town of Seaham, on England’s north-east coast, with three pits employing thousands in its heyday.
But the pits also brought tragedy when two mining disasters wiped out generations of men and boys, ripping families apart.
A poignant memorial to the hundreds who perished in its underground chambers still stands as a reminder of the sacrifices and suffering faced by the community.
Now, decades after the last mine closed, the pits are set to be remastered and once again play a pivotal role in the community.
In a pioneering initiative, Seaham is set to be at the forefront of the nation’s renewables ambitions – which will be showcased when the UK hosts Cop26 next month.
Water from the flooded former pits is set to provide heat and hot water to hundreds of homes in a process that will produce almost no carbon and provide a cost-effective alternative energy source.
“We are thrilled to be part of such an exciting project that will really put County Durham on the map when it comes to renewable energy,” said councillor Kevin Shaw, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for strategic housing and assets.
“We have set ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions over the coming years.
“Geothermal technology has the potential to have a zero carbon footprint, and this has huge implications not only for the environment but for our communities and economy.
“By introducing it to our former coalfield areas, we will make them more attractive to investors, while helping to combat fuel poverty.”
It is hoped that the Seaham project will be replicated across the UK and the nation’s network of 23,000 abandoned deep coal mines would be repurposed.
Presently, the water in the flooded mines is pumped out and cleaned to stop it contaminating drinking supplies, then discharged into the sea.
It is already hot when it reaches the surface, due to temperatures inside the Earth – and will be heated up further until it reaches 60C under the project.
It will then be piped into homes and businesses.
In Seaham, a new garden village of 1,500 homes, a school and businesses will become the first in the UK to benefit.
It is estimated a quarter of the UK population live above former coal mines that contain 2.2m GWh of heated water.
The Coal Authority, which oversees the former pits on behalf of the government, is committed to creating a better future from the UK’s mining past, and estimates there could be enough energy in the flooded, abandoned mines to heat all of the homes on the coalfields.
It believes mine water energy could be crucial to when it comes to solving the Britain’s energy crisis, with Seaham Garden Village potentially the first of many similar schemes.
“Heat from abandoned coal mines is an innovative and practical solution to one of the big challenges facing the economy – decarbonising our heating supplies,” Jeremy Crooks, head of innovation at the Coal Authority, said.
“There would be wider benefits to this sustainable energy source too, as it would also attract new investment, create employment and deliver lower fuel bills to Seaham Garden Village and to other district heating schemes to be built on the coalfields.
“The abandoned coal mines in the UK present an enormous opportunity to us as a source of geothermal energy.”
It presently has 80 sites where the water comes to the surface, producing around 100 megawatts of heat that is currently not being used.
There are more than 40 areas across the UK taking advantage of government funding to conduct feasibility studies to see if the project could be introduced in their regions.
With the UK’s recent energy crisis resulting in inflated gas prices and causing vital industries to close, the option for alternative energy sources is high on the government’s agenda.
“Mine water energy is very much a viable solution when looking to help resolve Britain’s future energy crisis,” Mr Crooks said.
“Mine heat can be an energy source that is unaffected by external factors, meaning it has a stable price and is not subject to future variations or rises in energy prices.
“It has the potential to be an important, sustainable source of energy for the UK, while also providing many commercial benefits.
“The construction of Seaham Garden Village has huge implications for the future of energy in the UK, and could lead to the building of district heating schemes, heated commercial spaces and undercover horticultural centres in coalfield areas.
“This breakthrough is also important when we consider the impact of climate change, and the steps the UK is taking in order to reduce its carbon footprint as we move into an era of climate change awareness.”
Mine water is a renewable energy source that also has the potential to have a zero carbon footprint, he said.
“The method of delivery is much cheaper than district heating schemes using higher temperatures, where metal piping is essential and has greater temperature losses, making networks such as Seaham Garden Village much more viable than most district heating schemes,” he said.
“Notably, when mine water is recovered nearer to the surface it can be cheaper than public supply gas and is ideally suited to district heating, commercial space heating and horticultural use.”
In June, the Mine Energy Taskforce and Local Energy Hub published a white paper calling for greater support for mine energy as a key low-carbon heat source in the UK that can contribute to the government’s ambition to reach net zero by 2050.
It said that if the 42 schemes currently identified in the Coal Authority’s pipeline were to be built, they would collectively generate projected carbon savings of 90,500 tonnes per year, create up to 15,227 new jobs and contribute millions to the economy.
“The government reports that our low-carbon economy is predicted to grow four times faster than the rest of the economy to 2030 and we believe mine energy can be used to accelerate this further, while achieving our net zero aspirations,” Andrew Clark, Energy Programme Lead at the north-east LEP, who commissioned the white paper, said.
“The north-east has a rich mining heritage, so we are well-placed to tap into the potential benefits and opportunities presented by mine energy.”
Lord Callanan, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said if the 42 projects under consideration are built, they will create 4,500 direct jobs and a further 11,000 in the supply chain.
“Mine energy, the use of the geothermally heated water in abandoned coal mines, is not a new technology, but it is one with the potential to deliver thousands of jobs and drive economic growth in some of the most disadvantaged communities in our country," he said.
Professor Jon Gluyas, director of Durham Energy Institute, said the project will create a new industry in the UK.
“Development of mine heat will not only help the UK meet its greenhouse gas emission targets, but also generate a new industry and supporting supply chain," he said.
"The UK built many of its towns and cities where it mined its coal in the North of England, North Midlands and Central Scotland. Reusing the old mines to deliver low-carbon heat will also help deliver the government’s levelling up agenda and attract further inward investment into the North.
“With one project operational and several more due to be delivered in the next couple of years, the White Paper will act as a template for sustainable, heat energy delivery across the UK.”