Environment Minister Alex Attwood has granted planning permission for a £400m facility that will store natural gas in caverns carved from salt deposits a mile beneath the seabed of Larne Lough.
Islandmagee Storage Limited (IMSL) will develop the facility and says it will be capable of storing 500million cubic metres of natural gas after it has been piped to our shores — enough to meet peak demand for 60 days. At present, all of Northern Ireland’s natural gas demand — of which 60% is used to fuel our power stations — is brought in from overseas.
The plan has been hailed as a way to create greater energy security in the future. The company says the project can potentially create around 200 construction jobs during its seven-year development and 20-30 long-term operational posts, providing an economic boost for the east Antrim area.
Mr Attwood said the facility would be an energy bank that can store gas brought in when prices are low and used to supply demand when prices rise. It can make up the needed energy when the wind is not of sufficient strength to power future wind turbines, he said.
The minister added: “This security of supply of energy will be a significant step forward in the way we manage our energy sector.
“North Sea gas supplies are declining steeply and this facility will make a significant contribution to the security of gas supplies for the whole of Ireland and indeed for Britain. Furthermore, gas storage has the potential to |reduce volatility in energy prices — gas can be purchased for storage when prices are low for use or sale when prices are higher. This is important for Northern Ireland’s future economic development.”
Addressing concerns about the impact of the store on the environment, he said: “There has been an exhaustive consultation process and I am satisfied that this proposal can proceed in a way that develops the economy whilst protecting the environment.”
IMSL director Paddy Larkin described the project as “economically and strategically important”.
“This facility will make a significant contribution to security of energy supplies as well as helping to meet the greater short-term demands placed on the gas network to support increased intermittent renewable generation,” he said.
But plans for caverns beneath lough have already attracted hundreds of complaints
By Linda Stewart
An artist’s impression of how the project at Larne Lough will look and (right) graphic shows the depth of the operationIt sounds like the dream of a James Bond scriptwriter — vast caverns carved out of the Permian salt layer a mile beneath Larne Lough and used to stockpile natural gas.
But that ambitious £400m project is now one step closer after Environment Minister Alex Attwood granted it planning permission.
Islandmagee Storage Limited (IMSL) — backed by a huge investment from BP — plans to pump seawater from nearby Belfast Lough under the ground to dissolve large pockets of salt from deposits currently lying below the lough.
They will then pump this concentrated brine out to sea over a four-year period.
This will create seven storage caverns in the salt layer — each measuring about 80m in diameter and 160m in height — where up to 500million cubic metres of natural gas can be stored.
It means that during low-demand periods, such as summer time and at night, any excess gas piped in from Scotland can be used to fill up the storage caverns and can be withdrawn when demand is high.
The storage caverns will be beside Ballylumford Power Station, which is now fuelled by natural gas, and close to the point where the gas pipeline enters Northern Ireland.
The proponents of the scheme say the storage of gas can be also used in tandem with the increased wind energy we expect to rely upon in years to come.
But fishermen and environmentalists have expressed reservations, fearing that marine communities could be destroyed if hyper-concentrated brine is pumped into Larne Lough.
However, the company says it will be pumping the brine into Belfast Lough about 450m out to sea where swift currents should help disperse it quickly.
But the plans have already attracted over 350 complaints.
Nigel Hamilton, from Marine Conservation Northern Ireland, said local residents were concerned about the expulsion of brine from the underwater caverns and also feared “a considerable amount of high, heavy vehicle traffic movements on Islandmagee —where the plant will be located — (on roads that are) unsuitable for this type of traffic movement”.
Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth NI director James Orr said he wasn’t convinced by the methodology used to calculate tidal movements and work out whether marine ecosystems — including the whitefish fishery — will be impacted.
Alliance East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson said he shared the reservations about the impact on marine and bird life.
“I am surprised that Alex Attwood has given the go-ahead for this proposal without more information considering the fact that the SDLP often make a great deal of noise about their green credentials,” he said.
Larne Deputy Mayor Mark McKinty said he was “enraged” over the shortage of proper community engagement and consultation with local people.
“Whilst I can understand the potential benefits of such a project, I believe this announcement is premature. There are concerns within the community which need addressed, and the Department of Environment ignoring these concerns is totally disrespectful,” he said.
Site preparation on the first borehole is due to start later this year, with drilling planned for the first half of 2013.
Construction of the project is expected to take about seven years to complete.