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Seeking New Energy, an English Town Digs Deep

It was never an ordinary swimming pool. Built in 1935 to celebrate the anniversary of a king, the Jubilee Pool is filled with more than a million gallons of seawater, making it one of the United Kingdom’s largest lidos, as the public outdoor swimming areas are called.

Five years ago, though, the Art Deco pool was run down after decades of neglect and a major winter storm that struck the southwestern English coast in 2014.

Now it’s tapping an energy source that its creators hope will give new life to the county of Cornwall. By next year, despite some snags, the pool is expected to be available year-round, and a new geothermal plant nearby could provide a fresh source of electricity for a region that has suffered economic decline.

Cornwall has a major advantage when it comes to alternative energy production: It sits atop a 280-million-year-old granite mass known as the Cornubian batholith, which is geologically ideal for producing geothermal energy.

No one was thinking about that, though, when the Jubilee Pool was built in the town of Penzance as part of the celebration of King George V’s silver jubilee. Filled with enough seawater for two Olympic-sized swimming pools, it was a thriving community resource. But it suffered decline over the years, and after major damage from the 2014 storm, the local authority mulled whether it was worth saving.

A band of enthusiastic locals stayed the wrecking ball. They offered to take over management of the pool, with a mission that it would serve the community as it once had.

A local hotelier, Susan Stuart, became one of the group’s founding directors. “Penzance is quite a poor town, and less than 40 percent of the families here have cars,” she said. “Buses are very expensive. So for kids who can’t get to the beaches, this is a safe way of swimming in the sea.”

After a two-year renovation, the pool reopened in 2016, and Ms. Stuart and her colleagues were proven right; the reborn lido saw attendance rise from 26,000 to 40,000 over its 16-week summer season.

That limited operational window, though, was a conundrum. Fed by the sea and flushed by the tides, the pool was not heated, making it too cold for winter swimming — a major missed opportunity, Ms. Stuart said.

The solution lay beneath her feet.

CreditGeothermal Engineering Limited

Now, on a small patch of land adjacent to the pool, a bore hole has been drilled into the rock on which the lido is built. Starting next year, it is expected to provide geothermal energy to help heat the lido’s new wintertime section, allowing locals to swim in any weather.

The project, which will cost about 1.8 million pounds (about $2.2 million), is being paid for by a combination of grants and various other funding sources, including selling shares to local residents at £20 each. The drilling was carried out by Geothermal Engineering, a local start-up that has big ambitions for geothermal energy.

The Cornubian batholith is a prime location for geothermal projects. Granite contains a small amount of radioactive elements, such as uranium and thorium, which produce heat as they decay. To capture that heat, water is pumped down from the surface through fissures in the batholith. The water absorbs the rock’s heat as it flows, then is brought back to the surface as superheated water, which immediately turns to steam. It can then can be used to power turbines or to provide direct heat.

Cornwall is not the only place in the world with major granite deposits, but it offers an advantage: The rock here extends deep into the earth but is still shallow enough to make accessing it viable.

The first attempts to explore geothermal power in the region took place during the oil crisis of the 1970s; as prices for fossil fuels spiked, so too did interest in alternative energy sources. Initial data was positive, but inconsistent funding stymied further progress.

That changed a decade ago, when Ryan Law, a geologist, first visited the region. He was working for Arup, an engineering design firm, and had experience using geothermal heat for office and residential buildings.

What Mr. Law saw in Cornwall, though, was remarkable. “It’s almost as if someone has created the power station beneath the ground for us,” he said. “The only trick — and it’s quite an expensive one — is how do you tap into that heat?”

So he founded Geothermal Engineering to answer that question. Since then, it has raised £18 million to fund its exploration.

The company faced two challenges: identifying the right location for a bore hole and then drilling deeper than had ever been attempted in the United Kingdom. Surveying the region, Mr. Law and his team identified United Downs, near the isolated town of Redruth, as a promising location; it sits atop a geological structure known as the Porthtowan Fault, which met their geological parameters.

Last November, the company began drilling two columns, one of which reached a record-breaking depth for the United Kingdom of about 3.2 miles. They were completed this summer, and the drilling rig left the site at the end of July.

Mr. Law plans to test the site for several months, with the goal of beginning construction of Cornwall’s first geothermal power plant in March. He expects to complete it in about a year. The central turbine will be housed in a building barely larger than a single-family home; running nonstop, it is expected to produce no carbon dioxide and generate three megawatts of electricity per day — enough, according to the company, to power about 3,000 homes.

Geothermal energy sites elsewhere in the world provide significant heat to local communities without carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global warming; many of the buildings in Reykjavik, Iceland, for instance, are warmed this way.

There’s already a rival geothermal project in Cornwall, led by Sir Tim Smit, who devised the Eden Project just outside St. Austell. The global garden consists of enormous biomes filled with plants that live in a simulated environment. (It was used as a futuristic setting in the James Bond film “Die Another Day.”) A geothermal power station at Eden is expected to be operational by 2023, providing all of the project’s electricity plus enough for 6,000 homes.

Molly Scott Cato, a local member of the European Parliament and a Green Party politician, champions the efforts to tap geothermal power in the region.

“Cornwall is very economically deprived and is now perceived as a rural backwater — a tourist area,” she said. “But they don’t want to be that. This is where the Industrial Revolution started; the steam engine was invented here to pump water out of the mines.”

Notoriously windy and one of the sunnier parts of the United Kingdom, Cornwall is primed to produce all forms of renewable energy, Ms. Cato said. “The Green Industrial Revolution could be happening in what people think of as the sleepy, rural southwest.”

It isn’t all straightforward, though. Geothermal exploration is expensive, compared to drilling for oil and gas, and it is time-consuming to identify sites like the Porthtowan Fault, which are the carbon-neutral equivalent of striking an oil reserve. The short-term returns are lower too.

And pumping water through granite can create microearthquakes, a longtime challenge for geothermal engineers. Mr. Law said that choosing the right site, where rock will be put under less strain when water passes through, is the answer.

Other unforeseen problems can occur, as at the Jubilee Pool drilling site. As the rig there bored down, it hit a massive, unexpected quantity of warm water in a fracture of the rock, which prevented it from continuing. That meant the bore hole would be too shallow to heat the pool on its own and would need to be supplemented with a heat pump, powered by the existing electricity grid, which must be upgraded.

All of this has delayed the introduction of Jubilee Pool’s all-weather operation; organizers expect it to be done next year.

“This is very much finger in the air, as it hasn’t been done before,” Ms. Stuart said of the delays. But the pool’s feasibility studies suggest that heating could bring in about 3,000 extra visitors during nonsummer months.

“Winter tourism is a first for Penzance, and for the local economy,” she said. “In terms of our revenue, this could be transformational.”

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