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

Project Description

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.

For a more detailed outline of the project please follow this link on the IAPETUS website:

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.

Funding Notes

This PhD is part of the IAPETUS NERC Doctoral Training Programme. Instructions on how to make a formal application and information on eligibility requirements can be found here: View Website. Note that you must make an application both to the IAPETUS2 website and to Stirling University (View Website) for your application to be valid.

Full IAPETUS studentships are open to UK nationals and EU candidates who will have been resident in the UK for at least 3 years at the time of the PhD commencing.


Serious applicants are advised to make an informal enquiry about the PhD well before the final submission deadline and candidates are also strongly encouraged to send their CV and covering letter to Dr Jen Dickie ([email protected]).

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.

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