BGS news

Cornwall’s granite could hold the key to UK geothermal potential

Scientists from BGS will investigate the abundant geothermal energy stored in the granites beneath Cornwall.

19/02/2019 By BGS Press
Granite drill cuttings from United Downs borehole (taken at 2140m depth) – chips approx. 2-3mm in size. Photo courtesy of Dr Robin Shail, Camborne School of Mines.
Granite drill cuttings from United Downs borehole (taken at 2140m depth) – chips approx. 2-3mm in size. Photo courtesy of Dr Robin Shail, Camborne School of Mines.

Granite from Cornwall will be examined by UK scientists as part of a £1.8 million project in order to help the country increase its use of geothermal energy.

Cornwall’s heat-producing granite has already made the area a hotbed for geothermal exploration. In late 2018, drilling began at the £18 million United Downs project near Redruth, where engineers hope there could be enough resource to provide electricity for 3000 homes.

Now, scientists from BGS, Heriot-Watt University (HWU) and the Camborne School of Mines at Exeter University will work with industrial partners Geothermal Engineering Limited, GeoScience and Computer Modelling Group, together with the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, on a new project that will give south-west England and the wider UK the knowledge it needs to harness the abundant geothermal energy beneath its surface.

The £1.8 million research project, Geothermal Power Generated from UK Granites (GWatt), is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Geothermal is a priority area of research for NERC and BGS and is part of their portfolio of research into decarbonising the energy system.

In 2018, drilling began at the Glasgow Geothermal Energy Research Field Site, to enable research into Glasgow’s geology, underground water systems and the potential for the use of heat from the water in its disused coal mines. Data is also being collected from the water contained in gravels beneath Cardiff so that their potential for geothermal district heating can be assessed.

Dr Chris Rochelle, a geochemist at BGS, is leading the GWatt project and hopes that the team’s work will encourage the use of geothermal energy in the UK.

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Geothermally generated electricity is a carbon-free, renewable source that is available all the time, unlike wind and solar.

Knowledge gained from GWatt could help switch on investment in this abundant source of renewable energy by reducing uncertainty around the geology, and demonstrating to investors that these systems are worth funding.

The granites of south-west England have the highest subsurface heat flow of any rocks in the UK, which leads to the highest temperatures at depth.

We will be working with the United Downs Deep Geothermal Power (UDDGP) project in Cornwall, which will give us access to unique sets of new data from depths of up to 4.5 km. We will be carrying out innovative tests and analyses that will prove the potential for geothermal not just on that site, but across other granites in south-west England and the wider UK.

The knowledge gained from GWatt could underpin a new geothermal industry for the south west of England, and have an impact in the rest of the UK and internationally.

The data we collect for granite, coupled with increased confidence in the performance of computer models, could also tell us how limestone and sandstone will behave in geothermal settings, which means we could apply this learning to sites across the UK and beyond.

Dr Chris Rochelle, BGS Geochemist.

Dr Sabine Den Hartog and Dr Dan Arnold from HWU will conduct innovative research to better understand the United Downs geothermal system under simulated laboratory conditions.

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Our laboratory in Heriot-Watt recreates the conditions found in nature to examine the material properties under those conditions.

We will be subjecting material similar to the granite found in Cornwall to the natural pressure and temperature conditions and assess how their properties change over the lifetime of the UDDGP project.

Dr Sabine Den Hartog, HWU.

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One of the aspects that the CSM team will be addressing is how the geological history of fault systems across south-west England has influenced their ability to allow the flow of geothermal fluids at depth.

Together with colleagues, Chris Yeomans and Dr Matt Eyre, we’ll be mapping some of the larger fault systems, where they pass through the predicted hotter parts of the granites, in order to identify some of the potentially prospective areas for future deep geothermal.

It’s exciting to be involved in such an exciting and important project and allows us to build on the recent research we’ve undertaken on granites and fault systems throughout the region.

Dr Robin Shail, geologist at University of Exeter’s Camborne School of Mines.

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It has been known for decades that the heat-producing granites of south-west England represent a significant untapped geothermal resource.

The wells drilled at UDDGP will be almost twice as deep as any drilled in Cornwall before and will test the concept of developing geothermal systems within a natural fault structure.

The success of this, and future, projects will depend on understanding the mechanical, hydraulic and geochemical characteristics of the target structures and work carried out under the GWatt programme should contribute significantly to that understanding.

Peter Ledingham, UDDPG project manager.

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The need to address the UK’s carbon emission targets and decarbonise the energy system represents a major challenge.

Geothermal energy has the potential to progress both aspirations and the GWatt project will provide the means by which to test whether hot Cornish rocks will form part of the wider energy mix.

Prof John Underhill, chief scientist at Heriot-Watt University and a member of the NERC UK Geos Science Advisory Group (SAG).

The GWatt team expects the project to be completed by June 2022. A dedicated website will be made available soon so that the public can follow the project’s progress.

For further details or to arrange media interviews please contact:

Sarah McDaid 07866789688

Notes to editors

Find out more about the United Downs Deep Geothermal Project

Find out more about the Glasgow Geothermal Energy Research Field Site

British Geological Survey
The British Geological Survey (BGS) is a world leading applied geoscience research centre that is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and affiliated to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). BGS core science provides objective and authoritative geoscientific data, information and knowledge to inform UK Government on the opportunities and challenges of the subsurface. It undertakes national and public good research to understand earth and environmental processes in the UK and globally. The BGS annual budget of approximately £60 million pa is funded directly by UKRI, as well as research grants, government commissions and private sector contracts. Its 650 staff work across the UK with two main sites, the head office in Nottingham and Lyell Centre, a joint collaboration with Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. BGS works with more than 150 private sector organisations, has close links to 40 universities and sponsors about 100 PhD students each year. Please see

The Natural Environment Research Council
NERC is the UK’s main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world’s most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

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