Renewable energy firm Gaelectric is to embark on a fourth round of public consultations regarding its proposed £300 million power plant to generate electricity using compressed air stored in caverns excavated from rock salt layers 750 metres under Carnduff.
Gaelectric claims the project could create up to 300 jobs in its two-year construction phase, with another 40-50 full-time posts once it is complete.
However, the scheme has its critics, including East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson, who said he feared Larne would be Northern Ireland’s “most blighted town” if it were permitted. The Larne Times Your Views page has also given voice to objectors, expressing mainly environmental concerns.
We put their fears and queries to two of Gaelectric’s most senior executives – chief geologist Stephen Aherne and commercial manager for Gaelectric Developments Ltd, Patrick McClughan.
Q. When will you have the results of test drilling?
A. We are close to completion of the drilling operation to prove the projected depth, thickness and characteristics of the site. We would hope to have the final results maybe in July or August. We should have interim results by the end of March or early April which will give us some indication of the number of caverns we might excavate. It could be from two to four, at a depth of 750 metres. It depends on the properties of the salt layer.
Q. The caverns could each be on the scale of the Odyssey arena. How can you ensure that the area will remain stable?
A. The cavern walls will be maintained by pressurised air, almost at the same pressure as the surrounding rock, and there will be constant monitoring at the surface. There are over 500 caverns in use at the moment, for storage mainly of natural gas. Caverns that are specifically created for gas storage are designed to be stable. Historically, where there have been problems, it has been with old, mined caverns.
Q. Sammy Wilson, MP, claimed Larne would be Northern Ireland’s most blighted town if a five-story CAES plant is permitted. What is your response to that?
A. There will be five-storeys, but this is not a flat site at the top of a hill. Due to the sloping nature of the site the building will be built in to the hillside and partly submerged and topographically scaled. We have considerable experience of integrating very large turbines in quiet and peaceful landscapes and we have taken on experts to ensure that the power station is designed appropriately. It won’t be on view from Larne because the site is over the back of the Carrickfergus Road.
One of the challenges for the designers is to come up with something that is attractive and appropriate, It is a significant structure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting, or attractive. The NI Environment Agency architecture branch will be scrutinising this and they will want to see a high-level design that shows how the infrastructure can sit in a rural landscape.
Q. It has been claimed that pylons will be required to service the power station. Is that correct?
A. There will be no pylons feeding electricity to the grid. What you will have is infrastructure within the site curtilage, but there will be no large pylons stretching across the countryside. Connection to the grid will be by pole and wire, or underground cable: a mix of the two and always with the impact on the topography in mind.
Q. Will there be any wind turbines associated with the project?
A. There will be no turbines at that site that are connected in any way with our company.
We have wind turbines at Carn Hill, Newtownabbey, at Corby Knowe outside Parkgate and at Derrykeighan, near Bushmills.
There are approvals for single farm turbines in the area that are nothing to do with us and there are applications by other developers for two wind farms in the Larne area. Under no circumstances will it (electricity from either site) come in to our premises.
Q. Objectors are sceptical about the preferred route of the pipeline to dispose of brine from excavation of the caverns. They claim Gaelectric favours an outlet at Drains Bay which would be a cheaper option than Islandmagee.
A. NIEA would like us to co-locate at the dispatch point put forward by Infrastrata for the Islandmagee gas storage project and they have asked for the highest level impact assessment, but nothing has been confirmed at this point, but we could have confirmation by the time we hold this month’s consultation meetings.
Q. How long will brine pumping continue and how will it affect marine life?
A. Depending on the number of caverns, it could take up to 36 months. The area of seabed affected would be about the size of a couple of football pitches and once pumping has stopped it would start to be recolonised almost immediately.
Q. Residents have expressed concerns about noise associated with the plant.
A. The statutory authority is the local environmental health department and they have been consulted at all the pre-application stages. There are stringent EU noise level directives and if we fail to meet them the plant will not be built. And if we exceed the levels, we will be shut down.
Q. Why seek to site the plant at Carnduff?
A. Carnduff was selected because of the data we already had. It looked at the time that there might be a 300m salt-bearing package and so far that has proven to be approximately correct.
Q. Some people have claimed a lack of notice (in some cases only four days) about consultation events. Do you agree?
A. We have taken on board advice from the previous consultations and will be sending flyers to invite people to attend the consultations this month. People living in 12 postcode areas will be offered the opportunity to come along: it is the largest sweep of residents’ invitations ever in connection with a planning application anywhere in the north of Ireland.
Our record in developing wind energy shows that we excel in community consultation and that is evidenced in the 100 per cent success rate in our onshore portfolio.
As far as four days’ notice is concerned, the people in the host community will have had much more notice than that.
As well as the public consultation events, consistently throughout the process we liaise regularly with small focus groups on issues like the marine environment, right across the board, and that continues right up to submission of the planning application and after permission.
Q. What do you say to objectors who complain there is lack of detail in your presentations?
A. People do ask: Where is the detail and the reason is we don’t come along with a completed design that might be difficult to change. We begin the consultation process at the earliest possible stage, when we can still change our minds in response to what consultees tell us and that community engagement from the outset makes us better applicants. It makes our applications more streamlined than developers who don’t take on the views of local communities. People are sometimes taken by surprise, because our approach to planning is the reverse of the norm.
In the latest round of consultations, later this month, we will tell people what we know at this stage and later in the year, when we will hopefully know a lot more, we will consult again.
Q. Objectors say the proposal has no direct benefit for Larne.
A. We use locally based architects and consultants. Over 200 companies in this area alone could benefit from this project.