What lies beneath: exploring the role of subsurface energy technologies and resources in a low carbon future

Overview

The UK’s energy system is evolving. It is widely recognised that to meet our future energy needs whilst tackling the increasing threat of climate change, an energy strategy that integrates a broad range of low carbon energy technologies is required. Cutting carbon emissions, maintaining secure energy supplies and providing affordable energy are policy goals high on the political agenda, yet there are significant technological, economic, social and policy challenges facing the energy sector in the drive for decarbonisation.

Whilst significant attention is now being paid to developing science and technology research around new subsurface technologies that will contribute to a low carbon future, to date, much of the public discourse around the low carbon transition has focused on the role of surface-based renewables such as bioenergy, solar, hydro and wind power. In reality, this only makes up a small part of the energy landscape. There is a need to move beyond the focus on surface fixes and look at what the underground, or subsurface, offers us beyond the traditional focus on fossil fuels. The subsurface offers many additional opportunities to decarbonise our energy system, from shallow geothermal energy accessed via ground source heat pumps to deep geothermal energy in granitic areas of the country such as Cornwall, and heat from warm water in disused coal mines in Glasgow. Subsurface energy sources are also only part of the decarbonisation picture. Underground storage of CO2, disposal of radioactive waste in support of nuclear power generation and compressed air storage may all have a role to play whilst the UK transitions from fossil fuels to more renewables sources of energy.

Despite widespread societal support of a low carbon future, the technologies that will enable such a transition are often contested, with recent research identifying a complex mix of values and beliefs, social contexts, and types, scales and locations of technology amongst others as drivers that shape attitudes and perceptions. It is clear that the success of these emergent underground technologies relies heavily on public acceptance and support – as potential adopters, hosts, consumers and proponents or opponents of these technologies.

This PhD studentship is an interdisciplinary collaboration between The University of Stirling and the British Geological Survey (BGS), bringing together geoscience, energy geographies, big data, futures thinking and science communication expertise to explore how different ‘publics’ engage with existing and emerging subsurface energy technologies and to assess different mechanisms for framing these technologies within the low carbon narrative. By building an understanding of how risk perceptions and responses are shaped over space and time, this project aims to identify ways of meaningfully engaging the public in delivering a fair, equitable and supported low carbon surface and subsurface energy landscape.

Methodology

This interdisciplinary project will integrate geoscience, energy geographies, big data, geocommunication and futures research. The project will adopt a mixed methods approach, combining research design and theories from both the natural & social sciences to broaden the understanding of wider ‘publics’ engagement with underground geological resources and technologies. The project research will be based in the UK and take a case studies approach using current BGS research projects associated with the NERC funded UK Geoenergy Observatories and other research programmes on energy storage (hydrogen and compressed air), radioactive waste disposal, carbon capture and storage and renewable energy such as shallow and deep geothermal energy.

During this project, the student will work closely with BGS scientists and the communication experts to gain an in-depth understanding of the different subsurface technologies and their risks and benefits. Data collection methods will be co-designed with the project partners and will involve a range of creative and engaging qualitative approaches. These will include: interviews with experts to gain an understanding of the challenges of communicating the science associated with each technology; participatory ethnographic approaches such as geo-located walking interviews, participatory mapping exercises, focus group discussions and participant observation, to understand how local communities perceive different subsurface technologies; social media and big data analysis techniques to assess how public attitudes evolve over space and time in response to unfolding events and changing discourse; and creative futures thinking methods to identify gaps in knowledge, consensus building, future choices and trade-offs.

Key research questions:

1. How are subsurface technologies and resources understood, perceived and valued?
2. How do public attitudes to different sub-surface energy technologies evolve over space and time in response to unfolding events and changing discourse?
3. What are the long-term communication and cultural cognition challenges facing the development of subsurface energy technologies?
4. How do different framings of subsurface energy technologies shape the wider publics responses and how do they fit into the low carbon future narrative?

Project Timeline

Year 1

Understanding sub-surface technologies. Following a critical review of the literature (months: 0-4), the student will interview subsurface technology experts (at BGS), to build an understanding of the technology, identify benefits and challenges and co-design data collection methods.

Year 2

Attitudes to subsurface technologies and how they are shaped. In this phase the student will undertake a series of participatory activities and qualitative data collection approaches with diverse publics to explore how different ‘publics’ engage with existing and emerging subsurface energy technologies. Big data analyses of social media will be undertaken to investigate the impact of changing policy discourse and related events on public attitudes.

Year 3

Different framings of subsurface technologies. The student will use a number of participatory ‘future thinking’ approaches (informed by previous data collection) to identify preferred pathways to a low carbon future that integrates both the surface and subsurface energy landscape.

Year 3.5

The overlapping data collection phases of the project will take 34 months to complete, with the remaining time being allocated to writing the thesis & papers for publication, attending conferences & networking with stakeholders.

Training
& Skills

This studentship will provide a platform to build an interdisciplinary research career in energy studies, geoscience and geocommunication. The student will develop broad expertise in the natural sciences, together with skills in the social sciences, communication & applied anthropology. Training offered will depend on the background of the applicant although initially the student would be invited to attend a 2-day internal induction training workshop at the BGS headquarters in Keyworth which would introduce them to the range of BGS science, its management structure and support that is available to students.

In addition to the training available through the IAPETUS2 programme, other courses that would be available to the student include; Introduction to Geology, Accessing BGS Information, First Aid for fieldworkers, GDPR training, Building personal resilience and Developing your management skills. The student would also receive some on the job training to ensure that they has the opportunity to develop an understanding of the geological aspects involved in the chosen case study projects and the employed renewable energy technologies.

References & further reading

Stewart, I. S. and Lewis, D. (2017). Communicating contested geoscience to the public: Moving from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’. Earth-Science Reviews, 174, 122-133.
European Parliamentary Research Service (2019) Understanding public responses to low carbon technologies: Strategies for a low carbon transition. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/IDAN/2019/624292/EPRS_IDA(2019)624292_EN.pdf

Further Information

This PhD aligns with the new BGS strategy where Geoscience and Society is highlighted as a key underpinning theme. If you wish to find out more about what the BGS does, please contact Hazel Napier (hjb@bgs.ac.uk). If you wish to find out more about the PhD studentship, please contact Dr Jen Dickie (j.a.dickie@stir.ac.uk)

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