Sunderland City Council has backed exploratory drilling for a geothermal scheme to heat homes and businesses using water from a disused coal mine in the east of the UK.

The scheme will take place near the former Wearmouth Colliery, a coal mine in north-east England that closed in November 1993. Borehole drilling will be used to access the heated water as part of a pilot scheme. If the scheme proves viable, water heated through naturally occurring geothermal processes will be used to heat homes and businesses.

The council claims that the project could help local inhabitants cut their household bills. It has invited contractors to express interest in conducting the drilling. The project has been granted $2.2m (£1.6m) from the UK government’s Green Heat Networks Fund Transition Scheme, which grants funding to low-carbon heating developments in the UK. The UK’s Coal Authority will support the council in sourcing contractors for the project.

Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “This is another step forward on our journey towards a carbon-neutral city and reflects our ambition to innovate to help our businesses to operate and residents to live more sustainably”.

A proposal report by planning officers was granted unanimous support from councillors. The pilot scheme is expected to last a year, at which point the council will determine whether this will become a long-term project.

The UK’s former coal mines as heat sources

The news comes after a similar project was granted funding by the West of England Combined Authority in the south of England, two weeks ago.

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By GlobalData

Mayor of the West of England Dan Norris said of this project: “I can’t think of anything that would be more fantastic than to think what had contributed to carbon dioxide emissions over hundreds of years was then able to turn around and reduce them. There’s a kind of irony but also an important purpose there”.

The Coal Authority commissioned an initial study into potential coal mines which could be used for heating in July 2022. The body has a number of projects underway to explore the geothermal potential of disused coal mines across the UK.

According to Jeremy Crooks, head of innovation at the Coal Authority: “The abandoned coal mines in the UK present an enormous opportunity to the UK as a source of geothermal energy”.

Heating currently accounts for half of UK energy demands, with the majority derived from natural gas. The government has set a target of zero new gas connections in new-build housing and businesses by 2025.

Other projects being undertaken by the authority include a project in Seaham, County Durham in the north-east of England and a project with Nottingham City Council in central England.