£175m energy scheme must be headquartered in Larne, Council urges

THE headquarters for a planned £175 million renewable energy plant must be based in Larne, local councillors have urged.

They also took advantage of a presentation by Gaelectric Energy Storage on its plans for compressed air energy storage in the borough (CAES) to question company chiefs on environmental concerns.

A seven-strong team from Gaelectric put the case for Project-CAES Larne at the council’s monthly meeting. The firm is to begin a test drilling programme soon to establish the exact location of salt deposits, which it hopes to excavate for storage of compressed air - derived from wind energy - which will be used to generate electricity for the national grid.

Councillors heard that the scheme will create 200 direct and indirect jobs which will peak during the construction phase.

Project manager Ger Vowles said: “This exciting energy storage project will provide significant benefits in the running of Northern Ireland’s energy system and will reduce the amount by which electricity generation from renewable energy sources such as wind has to be restricted to protect the stability of the electricity system.”

He added: “CAES will allow grid operators to use off-peak power from wind and other renewable sources to safely store energy as compressed air underground. This compressed air can then be instantly called upon when electricity demand increases to help drive electricity generation from a highly efficient gas turbine generator, using significantly reduced amounts of gas and emissions.

“In this way, energy that would otherwise be wasted will be put to good use in storing power as compressed air that can be called upon by grid system operators at a later time. This means less wasted power, more sustainable power usage, lower emissions of greenhouse gases, greater energy security and ultimately lower energy costs.”

Mr. Vowles explained that the unique local geology makes Larne the only place on the island of Ireland where the project can be located and he promised it would deliver a range of important benefits to Larne and Northern Ireland.

“This will include a significant local economic benefit in the form of investment and jobs in the Larne area during construction of the £175 million facility, energy markets benefit from a greater utilisation of renewable power sources, greater fuel security and lower costs, and the environmental benefits in reduced emissions of greenhouse gases,” he said.

“Project-CAES Larne will also be at the cutting edge of energy technology and the delivery of the Smart Electricity Grid in Europe. This will provide major opportunities for innovation and skills development locally.”

Mr. Vowles announced that Gaelectric will commence a “limited programme of exploratory drilling” to confirm the location and suitability of salt deposits for the creation of storage caverns for CAES.

“He told councillors that the work would commence in a matter of months and would take up to 12 weeks to conclude. A number of studies were also underway as part of the environmental impact assessment process.

The project manager offered an assurance that a “thorough” programme of consultation with the community “will afford anyone with information or views to contact the Gaelectric during the assessment and project design phases”.

At Smiley Buildings last week, Cllr Gregg McKeen pressed for administration of the project to be based in Larne. “Most companies come in and set up their offices in Belfast. Can you give an early commitment to setting up in Larne and creating jobs here?” he asked

Cllr Brian Dunn likewise wanted to know; “What’s in it for Larne?” And Cllr John Mathews advised that a local office would be “a significant step forward”.

Cllr Gerardine Mulvenna asked Gaelectric to take heed of the views of local people and Ald Winston Fulton contrasted the possibility of cheaper electricity with the pylons associated with power stations, while highlighting the existence of several local areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Cllr Roy Craig had concerns about the proliferation of wind turbines and Cllr James McKeown asked for additional information on Gaelectric’s pledge to establish a community fund.

Development of a CAES plant would involve initial exploration and development to assess the feasibility of using the salt deposits for CAES. This could require investment up to £10 million. If the data shows the project is viable, it will continue through to construction, involving the leaching of caverns, compression and withdrawal testing of air from the caverns, combined with installation of the CAES machinery and surface infrastructure, possibly requiring a capital investment of up to £175 million.

The approximate time scale for development and construction of a plant is expected to be between three and five years. Gaelectric, which was awarded an exploration licence in December, 2011, is a privately held renewable energy generation and technology group headquartered in Dublin, with projects all over the island and in North America.

The company has 10 wind farm projects in various stages of the planning process and recently commenced construction at its Carnhill wind farm.