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Could coal mines solve Britain’s energy crisis?

Could a village in the North East of England be the trailblazer for geothermal energy? A 1,500-home garden village situated in County Durham is the first of its kind to be powered by geothermal heat from mine water. Guaranteeing no price fluctuations and the potential of a zero carbon footprint, I'd like to examine the Seaham Garden Village project and explain how industrial automation software could be critical to supporting the success of similar projects.


Seaham Garden Village will consist of 750 affordable homes and the same number of private homes, plus medical and innovation centres, shops and a school. It will be the first working example of a network powered by geothermal heat from the nearby abandoned Dawdon mine.

As part of a water treatment scheme overseen by the UK Government’s non-departmental Coal Authority, the Seaham pilot project is based on the idea of geothermally heating water from the UK’s extensive network of flooded abandoned coal mines. Mine heat can remain unaffected by external factors and, according to the Financial Times, advocates say there is enough geothermal energy in the UK’s abandoned coal mines to heat 180 million homes. Furthermore, CO2 emission savings generated by this concept are estimated at 55 per cent.

There is a lot riding on the Seaham Garden Village project to prove successful — with a view that it could one day be rolled-out across the UK’s extensive abandoned coal mines.


Inspiring trust

As with all renewable energy sources, maintaining a stable energy supply from geothermal sources can be problematic. The supply of power from Dawdon mine to Seaham Garden Village will be transferred through a unique pipe network using a heat exchanger. In order to remain efficient, this geothermal heat network must remain stable all-year round.

This is where industrial software platform can prove critical. One such platform is zenon, developed by COPA-DATA. The intuitive software allows operators on energy grids to track data, deliver reports and optimise the performance of energy generation equipment — all towards the goal of delivering savings.

For a project like Seaham, zenon would be used to control and connect key devices in the network, such as linking programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and intelligent end devices (IEDs) with sensors. The software would process the data needed to ensure that the village’s homes are powered reliably and effectively. For instance, if zenon identifies a decreased demand for power during certain times of the day, operators can use this insight to reduce the amount of power generated, store the energy or, if the grid allows, sell the energy onto another supplier.

So far, so powerful. But, what if aside from being able to analyse trends in real-time operators could also benefit from knowing this information in advance? Gathering data over time makes it possible to identify forward trends that will make energy generation more efficient. Industrial automation software is already used in this way within smart grids or micro-grids.


Wider potential

If the Seaham Garden Village proves successful, then other district heating schemes may be built on nearby coalfields and industrial software platforms will prove critical in rolling these systems out across the UK.

A good example was achieved for EVN Hanoi, the board within Vietnam’s national electricity operator. Petrolec, the local power distributor, recommended that EVN Hanoi implement a new control system based on zenon automation software for more than 30 of its 110 kilovolt (kV) substations. zenon gave EVN Hanoi the overview of the system that it needed and, furthermore, allowed the organisation to control Hanoi’s entire network locally from a single, centralised point.

The potential of zenon in managing large networks has been enhanced this year with the launch of zenon Service Grid Distributed Intelligence and Networking. The flexible, open and secure architecture is designed for larger systems and could help to connect different geothermal heat-networked sites together — even if those mines are operated by different companies. This could also connect geothermal sites to the wider energy grid, further reducing the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels.

With an estimated 25,000 square kilometres of disused coal mines and tunnels in the UK, the success of the Seaham Garden Village project poses huge potential. Industrial software platforms will be crucial in making these renewable energy concepts a reality.