The geothermal energy potential of Northern Ireland…

On the 3rd February 2020, the Northern Ireland Assembly declared a climate emergency and called for immediate measures to tackle it. One such measure outlined in the New Decade New Approach agreement is the new Energy Strategy for Northern Ireland. This strategy is being led by the Department for the Economy (DfE), with the purpose of achieving net zero carbon and affordable energy for all. This new Energy Strategy signals the beginning of our energy transition, during which we will face some significant hurdles. Energy in Northern Ireland used for heating alone amounts to 50% of total energy consumption (Figure 1). This is a daunting fact that will need addressed through the new Energy Strategy.

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Figure 1 – Total final Energy Consumption NI 2017

Decarbonising our heat sector will require a combination of reducing heat demand through energy efficiency investment, and reducing the carbon intensity of the remaining heat required, primarily through the phasing out of our use of fossil fuels, particularly oil.

In March 2021 DfE held an Energy Strategy consultation on net-zero policy options. In Section 8 of the consultation, there was a question related to geothermal energy and its potential to contribute to the net-zero target.

This is where the new strategy coincides with an area that I am studying and also strongly passionate about; geothermal energy. I previously worked offshore for BP in the hydrocarbons industry for seven years but chose to resign because I witnessed what was happening around the world with climate change and wanted instead to follow a vocation in the energy transition. I am now a geothermal innovation researcher as part of the UKRI-funded QUADRAT research programme at Queen’s University, Belfast. It has become very clear to me that geothermal energy represents a major opportunity to help with our decarbonisation of heat. Geothermal offers a low-carbon heat supply that is secure and available 24/7. I have reviewed multiple case studies from other countries that have successfully integrated geothermal into their energy supply matrix and believe it is now our time to do the same. We have been reporting on the geothermal potential of Northern Ireland since the 1970s, but yet only have a handful of projects; including the large scale geothermal heating project consisting of forty, 125 m deep wells at the new School of Management in Queen’s.

Countries with similar geothermal resources to ours have seen growth in their geothermal industry, e.g. the Netherlands, I noted that they have strategically developed the supporting legislation, regulatory regimes, provided financial incentives and carried out good social engagement. Officials working on heat policy in DfE for the Energy Strategy established a Heat Policy working group that has been considering such factors.

From my initial research, I am of the opinion that we should not only create a renewable heat target but that we should also break that into the various forms of renewable heat that will form the renewable heat matrix to decarbonise the heat sector. We haven’t even scratched the surface of the capabilities and contributions geothermal energy can make to our new Energy Strategy and subsequent decarbonisation of heat. At this time the whole world seems to be waking up to the potential of geothermal, including here in Northern Ireland.

The interest in the geothermal energy potential of Northern Ireland has been increasing over the past year, starting with the very successful Build Back Better: Geothermal Energy for NI virtual conference in December 2020, which was attended by over 320 people. The conference was organised by the trio of the Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action (SECA) at Queen’s University, the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) and the Geothermal Association of Ireland (GAI). This trio continued momentum of geothermal awareness into 2021 by starting an ongoing monthly webinar series on various global geothermal energy projects, with this month’s presentation from Baseload Capital on Friday the 5th November at 10am. The title of the webinar is: ‘Geothermal is trending. Why are so many people suddenly interested in geothermal energy? Let’s find out why!’

As a result of numerous submissions to the DfE Energy Strategy Consultation and the momentum of general interest in Geothermal Energy, DfE established a new Northern Ireland Geothermal Advisory Committee (GAC). On the 8th July 2021, the GAC had its first meeting (see image above). As vice-chair of the GAC I am able to provide input from my research for the Department to consider on what is required for geothermal in Northern Ireland.

The purpose of the GAC is to inform and advance the development of geothermal as a strategic low-carbon source of heating, cooling, energy storage, power, and green jobs in Northern Ireland. It will focus on identifying actions required to support the development of the NI low-carbon geothermal economy. Essentially, the main role of the GAC is to provide independent advice to DfE, aimed at developing and supporting public policy and strategic thinking on geothermal energy in Northern Ireland. I am honoured to be vice-chair on the GAC.

The GAC is chaired by the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland and includes members from central government and non-departmental public bodies, academia, industry, professional organisations and the Geothermal Association of Ireland (GAI).

The current Chair of GAI, Dr Niall McCormack, is a GAC committee member said, The Geothermal Advisory Committee is fundamental in supporting Northern Ireland become #GeothermalReady. The early engagement of key stakeholders, including industry through GAI, is extremely helpful and will facilitate and accelerate the development of this clean, green, renewable resource.”

Lastly, I have been invited to speak on my geothermal innovation research at the Energy Forum 2021 on Thursday 18th November 2021, Northern Ireland’s annual energy conference. I will be presenting my interdisciplinary research between the School of the Natural and Built Environment and the School of Management at Queen’s on the development of the sustainable geothermal energy industry in Northern Ireland. I will be joined on stage by Dr. Rob Raine from GSNI, who has been working on the perspectivity of geothermal resources in NI and at the conference GSNI plan to release a new report outlining the geothermal potential for Northern Ireland. I hope to see you all there.

Joseph Fitzpatrick Ireland is a Geothermal Energy Researcher at Queen’s University Belfast. You can follow him on Twitter.