IT’S not very often that I start an article with a quote from a LibDem, but I feel Tim Farron’s recent quip in reaction to Michael Gove’s climate-crippling decision to approve the Cumbrian coal mine deserves a mention.

He likened it to “celebrating the opening of a Betamax factory”. In other words, out of date, with Gove and his government frankly out of their minds and most definitely out of step with the rest of the world – not to mention their very own COP26 Climate pact, negotiated by colleague Alok Sharma, which included coal for the first time.

A year is a long time in politics when you’re stuck with the Tories and their cloth-eared climate denial. All the more reason to refocus on our Scottish ambitions and bring the National Energy Company back to the table. Gove, Sunak, whoever, the Tories just can’t get their act together on vital climate action, which means that we in Scotland must.

More on that shortly.

Never mind crushing your reputation internationally and setting back your carbon emission reduction ambitions, this coal mine plan, if it ever comes to pass given the almost universal condemnation of it, lacks imagination, business sense and any wider understanding of green growth opportunity.

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Because if Gove and co are obsessed with coal and mines, then they only have to take a few steps sideways to come to a lateral solution on greening our energy. And that is the geothermal potential that is inherent in our disused coal sites in both shallow and deepwater mines.

As usual, the UK is not only last to the party on geothermal opportunities, we haven’t even sent out the invites. Germany, Italy and Netherlands have realised this potential for far longer than we have, and acted on it too.

Germany boasts 190 direct source geothermal projects, all financed through government support with insurance as a safety net for the initial big investment. The Dutch government has a clear vision for the role of deep geothermal in their path to decarbonisation aiming to develop 700 projects by 2050, supported with long-term financial and risk-sharing commitments. Italy was one of the first countries in the world to use geothermal energy for electricity.

Over in America, President Biden is also recognising this energy potential to power more than 40 million homes with a new Department of Energy focused on an “enhanced geothermal shot” that will “move geothermal technology from research and development to cost-effective commercial adoption, helping energy communities and workers transition to producing clean energy for the future,” according to US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M Granholm.

The National: Michael Gove and his government are frankly out of their minds and most definitely out of step with the rest of the worldMichael Gove and his government are frankly out of their minds and most definitely out of step with the rest of the world

The Coal Authority estimates that one in five addresses in the UK is in a former mining area, with the potential for both shallow and deep geothermal mine water to provide enough heat for approximately 100 years. Flooded mine water at a temperature of an average of 17C could make an ideal heat source for district heating networks using heat pumps to increase the water temperature and create affordable heating, cooling and heat storage for local communities and businesses.

Not only could this zero-carbon energy be brought into use in a far shorter time frame than nuclear or indeed new oil and gas wells, it could also boost our green jobs market and provide the perfect opportunity for a Just Transition of skills and expertise from the fossil fuel industry across the UK. All for a fraction of the cost of nuclear in financial terms and public purse burden.

This is before we even get to the important benefits in terms of tackling fuel poverty and historical social injustices for coal mining communities which still lag far behind on prosperity and opportunity, not to mention the impact on carbon emissions from our built environment.

ANOTHER positive is that the Coal Authority is already managing this mine water, and in parts of the north-east of England, it is also facilitating local authorities and private companies to develop geothermal heat as a source for local housing developments.

At an Environmental Audit Committee meeting in the autumn, ministers heard from a range of stakeholders on both shallow and deep geothermal potential with forecasts that aspects of this industry could support 10,000 jobs directly and a further 25,000 jobs indirectly.

My fellow SNP MP Owen Thompson highlighted the benefits of geothermal at a debate in the House of Commons last year, calling for a clear roadmap to capitalise on the “immense” potential of geothermal energy in Scotland, particularly for Scotland’s former coalfield communities.

The UK Government is in desperate need of some good PR, some positive headlines and in even more need of a decent policy on green energy and “levelling up”, a phrase with almost as little meaning to it now as “building back better”.

Surely Michael Gove, the most political of politicians, can see how many boxes this would tick for a party in dire need of a boost?

Don’t hold your breath and perhaps we should just let them continue to self-implode. But in these increasingly frustrating times, as ever, I return to my recurring preoccupation – where is Scotland in all this? And how can Scots benefit from this geothermal resource potential despite some of the less than scientific or pragmatic decisions at Westminster?

Fortunately, the Scottish Government has two ace cards up its sleeves when it comes to geothermal – both heat and planning are devolved powers to Holyrood and there may well be much we can do with these powers in terms of sourcing heat from mine water to provide power for our homes and businesses.

The Scottish Government has been looking into geothermal for more than a decade now with some major strides forward on research and feasibility studies and local energy potential. Stakeholders in this area are calling out for planning processes to be reformed to enable this energy source, where existing interest at Westminster can get to work on pressurising the UK Government into addressing regulation and licences for the whole UK’s benefit and investment opportunities.

FOR Scotland, I see the potential in geothermal as a way of re-igniting our goal of a National Energy Company, where the profits and benefits of this localised heat supply and source are funnelled to nearby coalfield communities to tackle fuel poverty and structural inequalities, with cost-effective heat, the creation of new green jobs and to bolster our existing manufacturing and supply chain capacity.

If we are looking for a way to kickstart the heat pump revolution, then geothermal is a good a place to start as any.

We could even liaise with the Welsh government on geothermal for a small-nations-with-big-ambitions collaboration approach. They are already one step ahead of us having adopted proposals from my favourite Scottish think tank, Common Weal, for a National Energy Company.

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With a Scottish National Energy Company focused on geothermal in the first instance, with a view to scaling up to other renewable sources across the country as time goes on and in consultation with local communities, areas across the central belt are ideally placed to capitalise on mine water potential and this could be combined with a drive to build new social housing fit for a climate-safe future to coincide with the installation of heat pumps and solar panels on roofs.

In this sense, the supply issues encountered with initial investigations into setting up an NEC are resolved – the heat stays local to communities that need it most, domestic energy costs are greatly reduced and excess profits can be channelled back into the local area, creating resilience, fairness, warm homes and a new industrial focus.

Geothermal encapsulates so many of the key issues around our transition to renewables and offers Scotland a way to use a previously untapped energy source as a force for good for citizens and the climate.

From the Just Transition, re-training opportunities and new green job creation, to innovation and enterprise, from engineering to architecture, from social justice to local resilience, from growing our manufacturing base and supply chains, heat from mine water could be the energy to focus in on and bring our hugely popular with the public National Energy Company ambitions back to the table.

As for Westminster, they’ll just have to play catch up.