Academics and industry experts have teamed up to drive forward ambitions to repurpose North Sea oil and gas infrastructure for the production of geothermal energy.
They have together formed Shift Geothermal, a not-for-profit organisation seeking to establish – with government and industry support – a national centre devoted to exploiting “limitless” geothermal energy.
It would drive forward efforts to power oil and gas installations and, longer term, repurpose then for geothermal energy production, the group says.
According to Aberdeen-based Shift, a lack of collaboration and coordination is undermining progress to unlock the potential value of this “huge untapped UK energy source”.
It insists the legacy of geological resources from decades of North Sea hydrocarbon production can be repurposed to exploit the “low-cost, clean, stable and plentiful” resource.
And the group has forecast that geothermal energy, where energy is harnessed from the sub-surface, could deliver up to 25% of the UK’s energy mix by 2050.
Government support is key
But this will require “government commitment and a strategic approach to sharing research in order to propel innovation and establish pilot projects, it says.
Shift is comprised of experts from Durham, Heriot-Watt and Manchester universities, alongside energy sector specialists.
The latter include Innes Auchterlonie, managing director of Aberdeen-based engineering consultancy Imrandd, with more than 15 years’ experience in oil and gas and asset integrity management.
“We believe geothermal is a viable part of the future energy mix,” Mr Auchterlonie said.
Aberdeen ticks all the boxes to become home to a new centre for co-ordinating future projects, thanks to its role as a hub for the North Sea oil and gas industry and its transferable skills, he added.
Funding talks under way
Mr Auchterlonie said Shift was already talking to potential funders, including organisations in the north-east.
Only a small amount of capital is needed to start co-ordinating research but further down the line the funding requirement would likely run into tens of millions of pounds, he said.
Highlighting the huge sums of public cash earmarked for a Global Underwater Hub in the north-east, possibly in Westhill, near Aberdeen, he said a new centre for developing geothermal energy was “equally deserving”.
Fellow Shift director and carbon reduction expert Alison Auld said: “Geo-energy has huge potential in the UK, but this has been largely overlooked.
“We now risk being left behind in terms of both investment and projects despite that potential.
“People all too often think of Iceland and volcanoes when they think of geo-energy, but the technology has moved on.
“Repurposing and reusing existing offshore infrastructure for geo-energy is a transformational pivot for the UK to develop a new, limitless, home-grown clean energy source whilst supporting the economy and creating jobs.”
Geothermal power generation is witnessing rapid growth worldwide, with installed capacity estimated to have grown by around 75% in the past five years.
This growth has been accompanied and aided by the similarly rapid development of geothermal technology that can effectively generate power from relatively low temperatures, in turn increasing the number of viable sites – including existing oil and gas production facilities.
The UK Government’s recent Net Zero Strategy outlined how the country will unlock an investment of £90 billion by 2030, to secure 440,000 jobs in green industries and pull through low carbon technologies and sectors to maturity and scale.
Potential for ‘thousands’ of jobs
Mr Auchterlonie said developing geothermal energy would be “completely complementary” to other renewable projects, such as carbon capture and storage.
Durham University professor Jon Gluyas said creating geo-energy hubs that provide clean power to existing oil and gas platforms, and also bring power to the shore would safeguard and create many thousands of jobs.
“It’s simply too big a resource to be ignored,” he added.
A recent report from global consultants Arup on the potential for onshore geothermal in the UK estimated a requirement for 15,000 direct jobs and 25,000 indirect jobs.
Shift believes the potential for offshore roles to be even larger.
The UK and gas industry currently employs 37,000 people directly and around 250,000 in the supply chain.
According to Shift, developing geothermal energy would require similar numbers of workers with similar skills.