Test drilling will provide data on wind-energy storage potential

CAES works by storing wind energy as compressed air and burning it to generate electricity.
CAES works by storing wind energy as compressed air and burning it to generate electricity.

SCIENTIFIC investigations into Larne’s potential for energy storage is being taken a step further by Gaelectric Energy Storage (GES).

Unlike InfraStrata and North East Storage – which hope to excavate underground salt caverns to build up reserves of natural gas – Gaelectric is undertaking exploratory drilling ahead of a proposal to cache compressed air generated by wind turbines at off-peak periods and use it to boost the grid when required.

If all goes to plan, GES would build a facility to convert the compressed air into electricity by heating it using natural gas. The project would also entail a marine pipeline.

The renewable energy and storage technology company has issued a public notice and invitation to participate in consultation about its probe into compressed air energy storage (CAES) in East Antrim from Ballygally south to Whitehead, west to Ballyclare and north to Carnalbanagh.

The plan is to utilise the unique local geology which features thick salt deposits below the ground which appear to be suitable for excavation and gas storage.

“This is a strategic project that will significantly benefit all of Northern Ireland by strengthening the existing energy supply and energy security of the Province, facilitating renewable energy, and creating new enterprise and job opportunities in East Antrim,” said GES.

The project team is currently surveying areas surrounding Larne for “existing physical and environmental constraints”. The general area being examined is indicated on a map available at http://www.gaelectric.ie/inside.asp?id=3

Gaelectric explained: “The resulting environmental constraints mapping study will assist in identifying a short list of potential sites, corridors and routes for the future location of an energy storage and generation facility, and its associated marine water pipeline and other service connections.

“These initial surveys will be assisted early in 2012 by exploratory drilling operations to confirm the presence and depths of geological salt deposits which could be used to create salt caverns suitable for the storage of compressed fresh air. This in turn can be used to generate electricity in an energy storage and generation facility located on a site to be determined through this site-selection process.”

GES and its specialist consultants RPS are currently undertaking they survey work, which requires them to mostly walk or drive on public roads in the Larne area and to cross private lands where they have obtained permission to do so.

“It is intended to commence exploratory drilling operations in early 2012 under a licence from the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment,” said Gaelectric, adding that the project team “welcomes all views and input from the public”.

As part of the consultation process, landowners who may be affected by potential sites and route of services are to be contacted directly by GES or its agents. GES has also said it will hold public consultation events on the project in the early part of 2012. The dates are to be published well in advance on the company web site and in the local media.

In the meantime, anyone who would like to make a submission or speak with a member of the project team should email info@gaelectric.ie or write to Patrick McClughan, Gaelectric, 12B Clarendon Quay, Clarendon Dock, Belfast, BT1 3BG.

East Antrim and Larne in particular could become the main location for renewable energy storage on the island of Ireland, subject to ongoing geological surveys undertaken by DETI and the energy storage companies. It is likely that Gaelectric has invested in the region of £10 million in an investigation that will determine if its own project is physically feasible.

InfraStrata and NES are exploring the possibility of natural gas storage in man-made caverns in salt layers under East Antrim and Larne Lough. InfraStrata is also licensed to prospect for natural gas and oil between Larne and Lough Neagh.

In the event the geology is favourable, all the schemes would then be subject to planning applications and restrictions relating to local areas of outstanding natural beauty and special scientific interest.