Iowa Stored Wind Energy Project Ends

Iowa Stored Wind Energy Project Ends

After 5 years and $8 million spent, the backers of a project to store wind energy below ground in central Iowa have given up.

The Iowa Stored Energy Park, which was to be a system by which wind energy could be stored underground in central Iowa, is being abandoned. The companies who were financing the effort announced July 28 they are giving up on the project despite spending $8 million and working to develop the system over the last five years.

It would have been one of the world’s few systems to store wind energy for electricity. The developers say they are abandoning the effort because two geological tests showed the underground rock formations in the location they had chosen are unable to hold sufficient pressurized air from nearby wind turbine farms that would later be released to provide electric power during peak hours of electricity use.

The plan called for electricity created from wind farms to be compressed into air and stored underground, then released back into a generator to be converted back to electricity when needed. Municipal utilities would have then been able to use the reserve electricity.

Underground formations unable to hold pressurized air to convert to power

The tests surprised the project’s promoters, who were Iowa’s municipal utilities and the Iowa Power Fund. They believed that the presence of a decades old natural gas storage cavern near Redfield in Dallas County would mean that the geological formations in the area six miles away would be able to hold the pressurized air. “This is a disappointment but it is the reason why we do the testing,” says John Blisten of Algona, chairman of the Stored Energy board and also a member of the Iowa Power Fund.

Two years ago the Iowa Power Fund approved a $3.2 million state grant to help fund the research. Blisten says the tests were “the biggest disappointment” of the $100 million Power Fund, a program which Governor Terry Branstad ended this year in an effort to reduce state government spending. Former Governor Chet Culver created the board and the Power Fund in 2007 to spark development of alternative energy and renewable energy in Iowa.

Research to store electricity generated by wind will focus on batteries

Most of the $3.2 million in state money for the stored wind energy project, plus $3.8 million in federal funds and $1.4 million from municipal utilities in Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas, was spent on research and testing, including drilling the test wells. Supporters of the effort envisioned a $400 million project that would include creating a newly built electric generating station that would tie into the state’s electricity grid.

The stored energy project was seen as one answer to a problem that has long been a roadblock for electric utilities. That is, electricity generated by wind turbines or other sources cannot be stored. When the wind isn’t blowing, the turbines aren’t generating electricity. Thus, there is a need for storage of the power that is generated when the wind is blowing.

With that problem, and because electricity is used in real time, electricity’s wholesale price is subject to wild swings. Robert Schulte, manager for the Iowa stored energy project, says much of the interest and attention in electricity storage will now be devoted to developing large batteries, some the size of semi-trucks, that are now being researched and tested.

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