The UK’s first compressed air energy storage project is to be awarded almost 6.5 million euro (£4.6m) by the European Union.
It will hold air in specially engineered salt caverns under high pressure on Northern Ireland’s east coast before releasing it to drive turbines and create power for the grid. The money will pay for environmental impact assessments, planning and design, the Gaelectric firm behind the innovative scheme said.
The system could generate up to 330 megawatts of electricity – enough to sustain thousands of homes – for up to six hours and the EU said it will contribute to energy security in the UK and Ireland.
The grant makers said: “The project is technologically innovative and has the potential to be replicated in other parts of the EU with suitable geological conditions.”
Wind and solar power are dependent upon conditions and storage technology can help manage imbalances in renewable energy production.
The project is intended to hold energy by compressing fresh air into caverns created within geological salt layers deep underground. Off peak power is used to compress this air, allowing this stored energy to be utilised later to drive turbines that generate power to supply electricity when demand returns or as power is needed by system operators.
Salt deposits suitable for compressed air energy storage are unique to the east Antrim coast across Ireland, and to a number of other locations in the UK and on the European mainland, Gaelectric said.
The Larne plan has already been included as a Project of Common Interest (PCI) under the EU programme to promote energy infrastructure spanning state boundaries, the firm added. It would cover an area of approximately 300,000 cubic metres situated 1.5 kilometres (one mile) below the ground.
The 6,465,000 euros (£4,547,000) grant makers on behalf of the EU are known as the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF). It said EU countries had agreed to the investment.
Its co-ordinating committee stated: “The PCI would contribute to market integration, renewable energy input and system security in both Ireland and the UK (Northern Ireland).”
Brendan McGrath, CEO of Gaelectric, said the recommendation was a further endorsement of the Larne project.
“Larne and Northern Ireland will become the blueprint for CAES (Compressed Air Energy Storage) and the integration of renewable energy sources across the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe.”
Established a decade ago, Gaelectric has grown to become one of Northern Ireland’s leading developers and operators of wind farms.