A world-class observatory in the Cheshire Science Corridor

Jodrell Bank Observatory

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the BGS are proposing to create a sophisticated observatory in Cheshire to research new, low-carbon technologies and foster world-class science and innovation.

Just as during the space age astronomers wanted to create the Jodrell Bank Observatory to discover some of the secrets of the universe, 70 years later geoscientists want to create an observatory that can look into our own planet to discover new solutions for global problems.

In 2015, NERC commissioned leading geoscientists to help understand these science challenges. Their science plan will guide research at the field sites.

The UK Geoenergy Observatory will comprise two research field sites. The Glasgow Geothermal Energy Research Field Site, in Glasgow, will study geothermal energy in mine-water heat. The Cheshire Energy Research Field Site will study the geology around Ince Marshes for energy science research.

Both field sites will have a network of deep and shallow boreholes containing state-of-the-art listening devices, which will act like stethoscopes to measure precisely the state of the underground in its natural condition and any changes in great detail.

These 'eyes and ears of the underground' will be able to measure the level of the water table and how it is moving, and the temperature and chemistry of groundwater. They will also be able to detect minute movements and other changes in the physical nature of the rocks. They will measure seismicity and a range of other characteristics.

The scientific instrumentation will allow us to measure precisely the state of the underground in its natural condition and any changes in great detail. The data will be open for all through an online portal.

Why do we need long-term observation?

Ince Marshes sunset

Underground research is important for tackling climate change. Research at the UK Geoenergy Observatories will help to understand ways to decarbonise the energy supply. In the future, instead of taking things from the rocks, we're likely to need to use the underground for energy, heat and cool storage, and possibly for storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

For example, the underground could provide a place to store large amounts of energy, resolving the intermittency of renewables' power. Renewable energy cannot yet produce all the power we need to fuel our economy. Wind, solar and tidal are vital for decarbonising UK energy production, but we need to be able to store excess energy when it is being generated to balance the peaks and troughs in supply and demand.

The batteries required for this storage would be enormous and would require a lot of mined metals. It could be possible to use geology as an alternative energy store, compressing air underground in the sandstone and then releasing it to make electricity at times of low production or high demand. More research is required to test the technology.

Carbon storage is an important way to lower emissions. Deep sandstones in offshore Britain might help us to return carbon to the ground from the emissions captured from the UK's power stations, factories, refineries, transport network and residential communities. An onshore research site will ensure the UK has the scientific capability and engineering skills to make carbon storage an option in the plan for decarbonising energy supply.

Geothermal energy may be a sustainable and scalable heat source, but we need to understand more about heat transfer, subsurface chemistry, biology and water movement to find out whether we can scale up geothermal energy safely and sustainably.

Countries all around the world are moving to lower-carbon fossil fuels in their bid to fight climate change. Gas, rather than coal, will continue to be used in power stations until alternative energy sources can replace fossil fuels altogether. Understanding what happens in the subsurface will continue to be important to inform regulation and permissions.

New energy solutions are needed and these require robust scientific research. The UK Geoenergy Observatories will provide important new evidence for geoengineers, geoscientists and geologists to understand the subsurface. This evidence base will inform future decision making on use of the subsurface, tackling climate change and protecting the environment.

The Cheshire Energy Research Field Site: why Ince Marshes?

Ince Marshes

Driving along the M56 between Runcorn and Ellesmere Port, you see Frodsham's sandstone cliffs to the left and the flat fields, refineries, factories and wind turbines clustered around Ince Marshes on the right. This view provides the clues to the rich geological environment that lies below.

Ince Marshes is one of the few places in the UK that geologists can model in great detail, because high-quality geological data are available. These data have enabled geologists to design an observatory for the study of important energy and decarbonisation questions.

Frodsham's sandstone cliffs continue deep under Ince and Frodsham Marshes. The deep sandstone rocks could be used to test energy storage that will support the UK renewable energy industry.

Research on the sandstone rocks below Ince Marshes could also provide vital scientific understanding to assess the feasibility of offshore carbon storage. The layer of deep shale in the area means commercial companies are exploring for gas. If an application to extract gas is successful, researchers could also explore important geoscience questions by observing the technique.

Observing these different technologies before, during and after operation would provide data that would give scientists a new level of understanding on how the subsurface environment behaves.

Finally, Ince Marshes is within the Cheshire Science Corridor, which is an initiative to create a cluster of science, engineering and energy activity in the area. The science corridor is designed to strengthen Cheshire's world-class research capability, complementing the existing Daresbury Laboratory, the Jodrell Bank Observatory, and specialist engineering, energy and science companies and universities.

The Cheshire Science Corridor aims to foster collaborations, innovation and entrepreneurship in science, engineering and technology, leading to the creation of high-skilled jobs and a buoyant, science-based economy.

Scientific information pack

Is research dependent on shale gas extraction at Ince Marshes?

If shale gas extraction does take place at Ince Marshes, the observatory would capture valuable scientific data. However, research is not dependent on extraction taking place. Valuable scientific research can be done with or without shale gas extraction occurring at Ince Marshes.

The BGS and NERC are not proposing any resource extraction and have no control over whether shale gas extraction will take place.

The BGS and NERC are not a part of the petroleum exploration development licence owner IGas's plans and we have no influence over whether a commercial operator applies to explore for or extract gas at Ince Marshes. We are not part of the decision-making process. Applications to extract are determined by the local planning authority (CWaC) and by the permitting bodies (the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive). We are not a statutory consultee on any proposal for shale gas extraction.

How will the research inform regulation and permitting?

As a result of the UK's long history of minerals extraction and other uses of the subsurface, environmental permitting and regulation in the UK is very stringent. UK regulation is among the best in the world. Regulation can always be further informed by new scientific research. An objective of the research at the Cheshire Energy Research Field Site will be to provide an independent evidence base to continue to improve regulatory practices around everything that happens in the subsurface, whether that's managing an aquifer, understanding the impact of landfill sites or utilising the subsurface for energy.

How can I find out more?

Our programme of community engagement events for Cheshire began in autumn 2017 at the dates and venues below.

Cheshire meeting
Date Event Venue Location Time
11 October 2017 Community drop-in meeting Elton Community Centre Elton 10am to 1pm
11 October 2017 Community drop-in meeting St Mary's Church Thornton-le-Moors 6pm to 8pm
30 October 2017 Community drop-in meeting Helsby Community Centre Helsby 1pm to 4pm
30 October 2017 Community drop-in meeting The Boshaw Centre Dunham-on-the-Hill 6:30pm to 8:30pm
16 November 2017 Community drop-in meeting Elton Church Hall Elton 1pm to 3pm
16 November 2017 Community drop-in meeting Frodsham Community Centre Frodsham 6pm to 9pm
13 December 2017 Community drop-in meeting Chester Town Hall Cheshire 4pm to 8pm
6 July 2018 A book, a talk and a geological summertime stroll with Professor Mike Stephenson Forest Hills Hotel Frodsham 5pm to 7pm
24 July 2018 Open meeting Elton Community Centre Elton 5:30pm to 9pm
11 September 2018 Community drop-in event Elton Community Centre Elton 1pm to 3pm
19 September 2018 Technical briefing Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre Cheshire 9:30am to 1:30pm

The exhibition materials from the meetings are available below and on the UK Geoenergy Observatories home page.

We are creating new engagement opportunities. More information about the engagement process and forthcoming activities will be provided soon.

Posters and printed materials

Posters from the September 2018 community drop-in event

Printed materials from our August 2018 community engagement campaign

Articles published in Business Matters – Official Magazine for West Cheshire & North

A phenomenal site for Earth science - September 2018 pdf 4.05 MB

Macroscope for our geological environment - June 2018 pdf 2.30 MB

UK’s top earth scientists join forces to connect the dots in our rocks - March 2018 pdf 1.46 MB

The Cheshire Energy Research Field Site - December 2017 pdf 2.73 MB

Posters from autumn 2017 engagements

These posters were presented at the community engagement events listed above.

Information leaflets

Contact

For more information, please use the UK Geoenergy Observatories contact form.