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Coal mines transformed society. Now, their flooded remains could heat the homes of the future

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LONDON — The ramifications of the Industrial Revolution, which had its roots in 18th-century Britain, were huge.

Britain’s abundance of coal — as well as the ease with which it could be accessed — was a crucial ingredient in this historical turning point, powering the steam engines which helped drive society’s transformation.

But things have changed. The number of operational coal mines there has plunged, and last June, authorities announced Britain would stop using coal to generate electricity from October 2024, a year earlier than the original target of 2025.

Even though most mines in the U.K. have closed, their centuries-old story isn’t necessarily over. In Scotland, work is underway to look at how the water that has flooded old, disused mines can be used to provide decarbonized heating to buildings.    

Conducting this research is a facility known as the Glasgow Geoenergy Observatory, which is run by the British Geological Survey. A dozen boreholes have been drilled, with the majority in Rutherglen, a town southeast of Glasgow.

According to those behind the project, both Glasgow and Rutherglen were home to some of the busiest coal mines in Scotland. After their closure, natural floods filled them with water of about 12 degrees Celsius.

This image shows one of the Glasgow Observatory’s sites in Scotland. A total of 12 boreholes have been drilled as part of the project.

Mike Stephenson, who was until recently executive chief scientist for decarbonization at the British Geological Survey, told CNBC that the project was about “doing research on the heat in coal mines and also, to some extent, whether you can store heat in old coal mines.”

Stephenson said that at the site where the work is taking place, the team was “experimenting with … how fast water flows amongst these mines, how warm the water is, how … fast, if you take warm water out, does the water replenish — so how fast does the warmth come back.”

“It is a research site, not a demonstration,” he said. Research was being undertaken “to try and understand what are the limits to the amount of heat, how much heat there is.”

“All those things will be a set of scientific findings and equations and models,” he added. He said this would provide valuable information to both companies and local authorities interested in the idea.

“It will help them decide where to do it, how close you drill the holes together, how deep you drill them, how you design them to make it as efficient as possible.”

The project has made progress over the last 12 months or so. In the summer of 2021, it was announced that pumping tests had been completed and samples collected from 10 of the site’s boreholes.

“The latest data show that the boreholes of the Glasgow Observatory are well-connected to the flooded mine workings,” Alan MacDonald, a hydrogeologist with the British Geological Survey, said at the time.

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Mine water between 50 and 90 meters under Glasgow measures between 11 and 13 degrees Celsius, he added. For comparison, the average temperature of Scottish groundwater is 10 degrees, MacDonald said.

Potential uses

According to Britain’s Coal Authority, 25% of the U.K.’s residential properties sit on coalfields. As a source of heating, the potential of underground, flooded mines such as the ones being researched in Glasgow appears to be considerable.

Citing its own calculations, the Coal Authority says the “constantly replenishing water within these mines could potentially be a large enough resource to provide all of the heating requirements for the coalfield areas.” It could also have applications in sectors such as manufacturing and horticulture.

“The water in these mines is a low carbon, sustainable heat source, which under the right conditions can compete with public supply gas prices and deliver carbon savings up to 75% compared to gas heating,” it notes.

A host of governments are attempting to move away from coal, but it still plays a crucial role in many nations. According to the International Energy Agency, coal supplies around a third of worldwide electricity generation.

Last December, the Paris-based organization said coal-fired power generation was due to hit an all-time high in 2021. As for coal production, the IEA said it’s “forecast to reach an all-time high in 2022 and then plateau as demand flattens.”

While it was crucial to the planet’s industrialization and remains an important source of electricity, coal has a substantial effect on the environment.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration lists a range of emissions from coal combustion. These include carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulates and nitrogen oxides.

Elsewhere, Greenpeace has described coal as “the dirtiest, most polluting way of producing energy.”

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In the northeast of England, South Tyneside Council has been working on a project aiming to repurpose part of the area’s mining heritage.

According to the council, the £7.7 million ($10.4 million) Hebburn Minewater Project will “draw geothermal energy from abandoned flooded mines in the former Hebburn Colliery.”

The initiative aims to supply heat to several buildings that the council owns by using mine water from the old colliery, which opened in the late 18th century and shut down in 1932.

The project is centered on the drilling of two boreholes. A water source heat pump will extract the mine water’s heat, after which it will be compressed to a far greater temperature. After being funneled to an energy center, a new network of pipes will be used for distribution.

The council is working on the project, which is slated for completion in June 2023, alongside Durham University and the Coal Authority. Last October, it was announced that testing had shown the mine water’s temperature was warmer than initially thought.

New lease of life

Attempts to use the warm waters of flooded mines are not unique to the U.K. In 2008, a facility described by the European Commission as the first mine water power station in the world opened in the Netherlands. A similar project based on using mine water to heat buildings in Asturias, northern Spain, has also been developed.

Back in South Tyneside councilor Ernest Gibson, whose brief covers climate change, spoke to CNBC about the industry’s deep-rooted relationship with the area and his hopes for the future.

“The economics of the area declined [as] soon as the coal mines closed,” Gibson, a former miner, said.

He explained how the shutting down of a colliery affected not only the mining industry but also others like the steel and transport industries, as well as smaller operations like local shops and the “ragman,” a term for a person who would buy, collect and sell old items.

Gibson went on to tell CNBC that he’s “proud” of the fact old coal mines are being used again.

“The collieries closed but … they were revived in a different format,” he said, later striking a more philosophical tone. “It’s like life — everything changes, nothing stands still. And I think it’s for the best.”

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Trump media company subpoenaed in federal criminal probe of SPAC deal

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump gives the keynote address at the Faith & Freedom Coalition during their annual “Road To Majority Policy Conference” at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center June 17, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Seth Herald | Getty Images

Donald Trump’s media company was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in connection with a criminal probe, according to the company with which the former president’s firm plans to merge.

Digital World Acquisition Corp. said in a filing Friday that Trump Media and Technology Group received a subpoena from the grand jury in Manhattan on Thursday. The Trump company also received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding a civil probe on Monday, DWAC said.

DWAC also said some current and former TMTG employees have also recently received grand jury subpoenas.

The filing came days after DWAC said the government investigations could delay or even prevent its merger with Trump’s newly formed company, which includes Truth Social, a social media app intended to be an alternative to Twitter.

Neither TMTG nor a spokeswoman for Trump immediately responded to CNBC’s requests for comment.

The Justice Department and the SEC, which regulates the stock market, are investigating the deal between DWAC and Trump Media. By merging with DWAC, which is a kind of shell company called a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, Trump’s firm would gain access to potentially billions of dollars on public equities markets.

Trump established Truth Social months after Twitter banned him for his tweets on Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. Trump Media’s CEO is former Rep. Devin Nunes, one of the former president’s most ardent loyalists in the Republican Party. Trump is also considering whether to run for president in the 2024 election.

Trump has continued to spread the lie that the election was stolen from him. His alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection is being probed by a House select committee that has accused the former president of being at the center of a multipronged conspiracy to block the peaceful transfer of power to Biden.

Early criticism of the Trump-DWAC deal came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. In calling for an investigation, she wrote to SEC Chair Gary Gensler in November, telling him that DWAC “may have committed securities violations by holding private and undisclosed discussions about the merger as early as May 2021, while omitting this information in [SEC] filing and other public statements.”

DWAC shares are far off their highs, closing Friday at $24.20. The stock had surged above $90 in October, after the deal with Trump’s group was announced.

DWAC on Monday revealed in a securities filing that it learned June 16 that each member of its board of directors received subpoenas from the same federal grand jury.

The grand jury sought documents similar to those the SEC already requested as part of its civil probe, DWAC said. The company itself was served with a subpoena a week ago with similar requests, along with other requests relating to communications, individuals and information involving Rocket One Capital.

DWAC also revealed Monday that a board member, Bruce J. Garelick, had told management that he would quit the board during the previous week. Garelick said his resignation “was not the result of any disagreement with Digital World’s operations, policies or practices,” according to the company filing.

— CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Thomas Franck contributed to this story.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

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Walmart is working on a response to the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, CEO says in memo

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Walmart CEO Doug McMillon speaks at the CNBC Evolve conference November 19th in Los Angeles.

Jesse Grant | CNBC

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told employees on Friday that the company is weighing how to respond to a Supreme Court decision that ended the federal right to an abortion.

“We are working thoughtfully and diligently to figure out the best path forward, guided by our desire to support our associates, all of our associates,” he said in a memo sent to employees on Friday. “We will share details on our actions as soon as possible, recognizing that time is of the essence.”

He did not say what changes the company is considering, such as if it may cover travel expenses for workers who must travel to another state where abortion is available.

The memo was previously reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Arkansas, home to Walmart’s headquarters, is one of several states with severe limits or bans on abortions that went into affect after the high court’s ruling.

Walmart is also the country’s largest private employer. It has about 1.6 million employees across the country, including many who live and work in states across the Sunbelt with abortion restrictions such as Texas, Oklahoma and Florida.

Since the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, companies across the country have had a mix of reactions. Some, including JPMorgan Chase, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Target, have announced new plans to cover employee travel to other states for abortions. Others, such as Kroger and Apple, said they already cover travel for medical treatments and reproductive health care. And still others have remained quiet.

Amazon, the second-largest private employer in the country, said in May that it would pay up to $4,000 in travel expenses each year for non-life-threatening medical treatments, including abortions.

Walmart already covers employee travel for some medical procedures, such as certain heart surgeries, cancer treatments and organ transplants.

Walmart health benefits cover only some abortions. According to the company’s employee handbook, charges for “procedures, services, drugs and supplies related to abortions or termination of pregnancy are not covered, except when the health of the mother would be in danger if the fetus were carried to term, the fetus could not survive the birthing process, or death would be imminent after birth.”

Plan B, an over-the-counter form of contraception, is covered only if the person gets a prescription. The pill, often called the “morning after pill,” works by preventing ovulation or preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb. It can be taken after unprotected sex or when contraception fails.

Other forms of contraception are also covered with a prescription, including birth control pills, injections and intrauterine devices, or IUDs. Some anti-abortion activists also oppose IUDs because they can stop a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

In Friday’s memo, McMillon said Walmart has gathered input from employees as it decides what to do. He also alluded to the size and diversity of both the company and its customer base.

“We know our associates and customers hold a variety of views on the issue, and this is a sensitive topic about which many of us feel strongly,” he said. “We want you to know that we see you, all of you. No matter what your position on this topic is, we want you to feel respected, valued and supported.”

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FCC authorizes SpaceX to provide mobile Starlink internet service to boats, planes and trucks

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The Starlink logo is seen in the background of a silhouetted woman holding a mobile phone.

Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission authorized SpaceX to provide Starlink satellite internet to vehicles in motion, a key step for Elon Musk’s company to further expand the service.

“Authorizing a new class of [customer] terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system will expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands that now require connectivity while on the move, whether driving an RV across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a U.S. port, or while on a domestic or international flight,” FCC international bureau chief Tom Sullivan wrote in the authorization posted Thursday.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the FCC decision.

Starlink is SpaceX’s network of satellites in low Earth orbit, designed to deliver high-speed internet anywhere on the globe. SpaceX has launched about 2,700 satellites to support the global network, with the base price of the service costing users $110 a month. As of May, SpaceX told the FCC that Starlink had more than 400,000 subscribers.

SpaceX has signed early deals with commercial air carriers in preparation for this decision: It has pacts with Hawaiian Airlines and semi-private charter provider JSX to provide Wi-Fi on planes. Up until now SpaceX has been approved to conduct a limited amount of inflight testing, seeing the aviation Wi-Fi market as “ripe for an overhaul.”

The FCC’s authorization also includes connecting to ships and vehicles like semi-trucks and RVs, with SpaceX having last year requested to expand from servicing stationary customers. SpaceX had already deployed a version of its service called “Starlink for RVs,” with an additional “portability” fee. But portability is not the same as mobility, which the FCC’s decision now allows.

The FCC imposed conditions on in-motion Starlink service. SpaceX is required to “accept any interference received from both current and future services authorized,” and further investment in Starlink will “assume the risk that operations may be subject to additional conditions or requirements” from the FCC.

The ruling did not resolve a broader SpaceX regulatory dispute with Dish Network and RS Access, an entity backed by billionaire Michael Dell, over the use of 12-gigahertz band – a range of frequency used for broadband communications. The FCC continues to analyze whether the band can support both ground-based and space-based services, with SpaceX pushing for the regulator to make a ruling.

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