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2020 was driving a supercar that keeps having to go over speedbumps. What a year. Terrifying and incredible. Frustrating and magnificent and life changing.

The highlight reel, for those short of time:

  • We drilled* our first well, proving a viable geothermal resource exists under a client’s property
  • We drilled* another twenty holes, including the first commercial minewater thermal wells in Scotland
  • We increased our number of active clients by a factor of four in a month, including a popular clubbing venue in the Central Belt

TownRock Energy turned seven years old on the 19th of July 2020. Before 2020, we had established ourselves as a reputable specialist in geothermal energy, helping a varied selection of clients understand the renewable energy potential of the ground beneath their properties. In the preceding years we had designed shallow wells to harness heat from flooded mines for farmers; evaluated sandstones at 3 km for heating a large-scale malting site, supplying key distilleries in Speyside, Scotland’s biggest whisky producing region; compared deep versus shallow wells in a sedimentary basin for a local authority near Liverpool; and so on and so on. But we had never managed to get a project to the point of actually drilling a well. Then 2020 came.

Within the first weeks of 2020, I spent a month in Nova Scotia, Canada, delivering a minewater heat network feasibility study for our first international client. The trip was a moment of peace before the storm, which included an lively Burns night celebration in a packed room with enthusiastic locals where I gave a speech and read a poem. By late January, while transferring between flights in New York airport, I first noticed people wearing masks. I became increasingly gripped by the daily news updates of the new frightening disease spreading in China. A week after landing back in Edinburgh, I was invited to design and supervise the drilling of an exploration well. Speed was the main criteria due to funding deadlines.

One month later, in early March, I was finalising the logistics and equipment and packing to go to Inverness, Scotland, to drill. The night before I was due to leave, it was clear that the global pandemic was going to shut down the country, but we were already committed to drilling and cancelling now would be an expensive process. So, whilst the country began to shut down over the next week, and I spent all evening after each meal with the team glued to the news, we drilled our first well. As the country began to close down, and the hotel (our client) sadly let go or furloughed nearly all of their staff, we drilled a large hole in the ground and proved a viable shallow geothermal resource exists beneath the site.

I got home the day that the UK went into lockdown. I panic bought spaghetti and tried to focus on work as a way to distract from the pending apocalypse. I was very grateful to have plenty of work to get on with. Then, as the lockdown started to drag on, and the entire global economy ground to a halt, work dried up too. While tendering for new projects, I worked for my brother in his joinery business, building a fancy feature wall for some architects in Edinburgh (who still haven’t moved into their new office yet…), and gained an insatiable appetite for the outdoors, as outdoor sports were one of the last things left to do. In early July, I lost a family member to coronavirus, which gave the magnitude of the numbers of deaths and infections being reported daily a very personal and heart-breaking reality check.

On the date of TownRock Energy’s seventh birthday, things started to happen again. I got to work with a strong and dynamic team of academic and industry partners to screen Scotland for viable minewater heat network projects as part of the UKRI funded HotScot project. By the end of August, we were back on-site in Inverness and carried out a week-long pump test, which demonstrated an incredibly productive aquifer which could be used as the source for a 1 MW heat pump.

In September work went completely mad. In one week, I signed up five new clients, and one more the following week, going from an average of two active clients at any one point to an all-time peak of eight. The diversity of projects was the most exciting part: capturing waste heat from sweaty clubbers and storing it in boreholes so it could be used for heating the next day; mapping and modelling the renewable heat resource of one of the world’s most culturally-significant coal mines in England; comparing a variety of ground-source heat pump resources for use in a major development in Canada. The national appetite for decarbonizing heat had clearly increased, probably due to the increased awareness of our energy and general insecurity if we do not all act to tackle global threats.

The last quarter of 2020 was a race, doing 65+ hours per week and leaning heavily on colleagues and expert subcontractors, whilst the world started to close down again. Whilst managing all of these desk-top studies, the time finally came to drill a complex suite of minewater geothermal and subsidence risk boreholes in Dollar, Scotland. Living in a caravan on-site, in sub-zero temperatures, for nearly a month with my hard-as-nails academic partner we drilled 18 holes, collecting valuable data and installing 5 of them with slotted liners and standing pipes so the data collection and analysis can continue for a year or more. This grand finale was the first commercial minewater drilling project ever to occur in Scotland, paving the way for a new industry to flourish at a time when a green recovery is needed more than ever.

As the pandemic continues to trip up our usual way of doing things, and no longer can we lean on familiarity and habit as it rapidly vanishes before us, we have an incredible opportunity to re-invent the way we do things. All things. Graeme MacKay’s cartoon above sums it up better than words ever can.

We have the opportunity to ride the terrifying and scarring wave of coronavirus into a more resilient, conscientious and sustainable place. If you think COVID-19 is bad, just wait until unfettered capitalism pushes our planets environmental boundaries past the point of no return. It is not too late, but we must build back better, and better must be for people and the planet, not the existing seats of power. We have less than a decade to get this right. Work hard, work right, and encourage everyone to get involved in making our society function within planetary limits.

If 2020 taught me anything, it is that we are resilient, we can cope with personal and global catastrophe, and we will be stronger for having dealt with it. Tackling climate change requires collaboration, innovation, rapid action and tireless effort, just as we have shown we have in dealing with the pandemic. So long as everyone, especially leaders, learn from this, we will be fine.

* Just to be clear we do not do the drilling, we hire competent drilling contractors to do the heavy lifting and supervise the process, collecting and analysing all of the relevant data.

Featured Image copyright: 4 Waves Cartoon 2020 © Graeme Mackay; available on artist’s website.