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The Cornwall Geothermal Rum Distillery: a valuable asset or cause for conflict?

by Jessica Forsyth

Image credit: Grimshaw Architects

When you think of Cornwall and rum, your initial thoughts may be of the county’s notorious smuggling history.  Indeed, in the 18th and 19th century, Cornwall was a centre for smuggling of goods such a tea, tobacco and of course, rum. There are many stories, including the famous novel ‘Jamaica Inn’ by Daphne du Maurier, that tell the tale of wreckers who would entice ships to the coastline before looting them when they inevitably ran aground on the rocky shores.

But what if instead, your first thought was of a pioneering project that harnessed renewable geothermal energy to mature and distill rum right here in Cornwall? Well, this is the hope of the Cornish Geothermal Distillery Company (CGDC) who have ambitious plans to create the UK’s first geothermal run maturation facility and distillery on land in Redruth, Cornwall.  

Image credit: Grimshaw Architects

About the Project

The United Downs Deep Geothermal Power Project (UDDGP) is the first geothermal power plant in the UK. It aims to utilise the hot granite rocks below the United Downs Industrial Site to generate power and heat.  The CGDC’s plan is to make a direct connection to the power plants waste heat output and boost it to run heat intensive distillery processes. To do this they aim to use an innovative high temperature heat pump that they are developing alongside global engineering consultancy, Buro Happold. This would go a long way to making it one of the most sustainable and carbon-neutral distillery projects in the UK.

The CGDC’s efforts to prioritise and champion sustainability has been recognised through their receipt of the largest single award from the UK Government’s Green Distilleries Competition which aims to fund the development of technologies that enable distilleries to use low carbon fuel.  These awards form part of the governments commitment to “building back greener” from the Covid-19 pandemic. Clean Growth Minister Kwasi Kwarteng believes that these awards will allow “UK distilleries to lead the way…in the green industrial revolution…while also creating jobs”.

However, despite this support from the UK government, and the project’s potential for providing “much-needed investment and quality full-time jobs…in this part of Cornwall”“much-needed investment and quality full-time jobs utilizing local skills and businesses in this part of Cornwall”, the original project’s progress through planning has come to a standstill due to a conflict arising from the land on which the rum maturation facility’s designs were initially drawn up.

Concern over the site

In the 18th century, this area of land at United Downs was used for mining and forms part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site. UNESCO and Historic England have expressed a great deal of concern regarding the potential environmental impact of the project and claim that it ‘risks damaging one of Cornwall’s prized natural landscapes’. Although they have expressed their support for the economic and employment benefits that the project aims to provide for the local area, they wish for an alternative location for its construction to be found.

CGDC’s concept requires proximity to the geothermal power plant and in their Design and Access Statement for the original plan they argue that the ‘development has the potential to offer long-term security for the site and its mining heritage’ and claim that they are committed to provide funding to contribute towards ‘restoration of the mining heritage on and around the site boundary’ as well as ‘offering World Heritage and Cornish mining related literature’ in the Visitor Centre. In spite of CGDC’s promise to spend £2 million decontaminating the site and restoring heritage features that have been heavily eroded, Historic England and UNESCO’s intervention means the original project’s future is now uncertain.

The conflict over the use of this site also comes from the current leaseholders, Purple Cornwall Ltd, also known as Autospeed, who currently use the site for stock racing. According to a statement by Cornwall council ‘Purple Cornwall’s lease with the Council to operate their stock car racing business on Cornwall owned land at United Downs runs until October 2021.’ Autospeed fear that with alternative sites for the racetrack yet to be found, the council’s plans to look for ‘low carbon and sustainable alternative uses for the site’, such as the distillery, may signify the end of stock racing in Cornwall for good. Calls to save the motor sport venue are being made by The Save United Downs Raceway Action Group and have been backed by former Renault Formula 1 racing driver Derek Warwick.

The concern shown by UNESCO/Historic England for the protection of this world heritage site from degradation caused by the construction of the distillery is somewhat confusing when considering its current use. Undoubtedly over the 50 years during which the site has been used as a racetrack, it will have suffered from erosion and continuing to use the site in this way would seem to conflict with the aim of preserving the heritage of the Cornwall Mining Landscape.

Cornwall council have said that ‘In preparation for when the lease expires in 2021, the Council is looking at low carbon and sustainable alternative uses for the site’ that ‘contribute to economic growth’ and provide ‘job opportunities in the area’. It seems, regardless of whether the distillery plans go ahead on this site or not, the racetrack has a small chance of being able to continue to exist at this site, but, with the support of the Council, will hopefully be able to relocate and continue to provide ‘a safe, controlled environment’ for ‘followers of racing, and for families who are looking for that great day out with a difference’ to enjoy.

Looking ahead

CGDC’s determination to safeguard their green, job-creating, sustainable project has seen them submit a new outline planning application for a much smaller research and development proposal. This project would be built on the hard edge of the former United Downs landfill site – a brownfield site that currently has no designation and is situated directly next to the Geothermal Energy Plant. The “Celsius – Sustainable Distillery Research Centre” will make use of the aforementioned high temperature heat pump to operate a copper still for distilling rum and a small facility to mature rum in casks. This Celsius Centre is a separate scheme from CGDC’s pioneering Rum Cask Maturation Facility and would have no biome or visitor centre, no public access and would create 6 full-time jobs. Its true value lies in its focus on the development of green technologies that will not only enable the distillery ‘industry to make vast improvements in energy efficiency’ but will also allow other ‘enterprises to use waste heat from other industrial processes too’.

The research conducted at this Centre and the technologies developed would undoubtedly act as important foundations for the shift to a green economy post pandemic and would contribute to increased focus on sustainability ‘in the distillery sector and beyond’. In a time when Cornwall Council has declared a climate emergency, surely supporting the development of a project that is committed to the creation of green jobs and ‘revolutionising sustainability’ should be part of the action plan to achieve a cleaner and greener Cornwall.

Image credit: Grimshaw Architects

To keep up with project developments please go to www.geothermaldistillery.com.  

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