Stormont politicians have long stressed the importance of finding more renewable energy sources — but a solution may well have been under their noses all the time.
The Sunday Independent has learned a feasibility study is to be carried out to explore the possibility of digging for geothermal energy on the Stormont estate, home to the North’s power-sharing government which has failed to get back up and running since last month’s election due to issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Experts looking to develop sources of geothermal energy in Northern Ireland have identified two sites for exploration — one at Stormont in East Belfast and another at a yet unidentified location in Co Antrim.
The Department for the Economy (DfE) has confirmed it will soon begin discussions with specialist energy companies to take the exploration proposals forward.
Geothermal energy is heat that is generated from hot underground water. The water is either pumped to the surface or is used to create steam which powers a generator to create electricity.
Geothermal energy is regarded as one of the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly ways of producing energy.
In relation to the two identified sites in Northern Ireland, a DfE spokesperson said the feasibility studies would involve “deep” exploration at the Co Antrim site while the tests at Stormont would be on a “shallow” basis.
If the digs are successful, it will be a boost to the Northern Ireland Executive’s plan to increase the use of renewable energy. Earlier this year, the DfE published a new plan which aims to reduce energy-related emissions by 56pc by 2030.
A DfE spokesperson told the Sunday Independent the geothermal energy sector was “not currently well developed in Northern Ireland”.
“There is a need to familiarise people with the technology and to support and nurture the sector to improve investment going forward.
“In 2022, the Department, in partnership with the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, intends to undertake feasibility studies that will inform future decisions on suitable locations for accessing geothermal heat and to better understand the potential role that geothermal energy can play in Northern Ireland’s energy mix. This will help catalyse growth in this sector.”
The spokesperson said the planned feasibility studies will evaluate the “potential and suitability” of two locations for providing geothermal energy.
“Depending on the results of the feasibility studies, one project, in County Antrim, will consider accessing deep geothermal heat with a view to proving that hot water is available at around 2.5km depth and that, ultimately, this can be used to decarbonise agri-food processes; with a future potential to decarbonise buildings through a heat network.
“The second project will prove that a shallow geothermal array connected to a heat pump and heat network can provide heating, cooling and thermal storage that will decarbonise buildings on the Stormont Estate.
"Another main objective is intended to be a publicly accessible “show and tell” to inform, educate and familiarise people with geothermal energy.
“These projects are intended to grow and nurture the geothermal sector with a view to accelerating development and establishing geothermal as a viable technology,” added the DfE spokesperson.