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After 5 years, backers end stored wind energy project

Dallas Center, Ia. – Backers who spent more than $8 million and worked five years to develop a system to store wind energy underground voted Thursday to abandon their efforts.

The Iowa Stored Energy Park, working to develop one of the world’s few systems to store energy for electricity, said two geological tests showed underground formations unable to hold sufficient pressured air from nearby wind farms that would later be released to provide power during peak hours.

The plan called for electricity created from wind farms to be compressed into air and stored underground, then released back into the generator to be converted back to electricity when needed.

Municipal utilities would have had first call on the reserve electricity.

The tests surprised project promoters, primarily Iowa’s municipal utilities and the Iowa Power Fund. They believed that the presence of a decades-old natural gas underground storage cavern in nearby Redfield would signify the geological worthiness of the formations six miles away in Dallas County.

“This is a disappointment, but it is why we do due diligence,” said John Bilsten of Algona, chairman of the Stored Energy board and also a member of the board of the Iowa Power Fund. The fund two years ago approved a $3.2 million state grant to help fund the research.

Bilsten described the failed tests as “the biggest disappointment” of the $100 million Power Fund, which was ended by Gov. Terry Branstad this year. Former Gov. Chet Culver created the board in 2007 to spark development of alternative and renewable energy.

The bulk of that state money, plus $3.8 million in federal funds and $1.4 million from municipal utilities in Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas, went to drill three test wells west of Dallas County near Iowa Highway 44.

Supporters envisioned a $400 million project that would include creating a newly constructed electric generator that would tie into the state’s electric grid.

The stored energy project was seen as one answer to a problem that has long vexed electric utilities – that electricity cannot be stored. Because it is used in real time, electricity’s wholesale price is subject to wild swings, as experienced a decade ago in California and less spectacularly in other areas.

Minneapolis consultant Robert Schulte, who acted as manager for the stored energy project, said much of the interest and attention in electricity storage now has swung toward large batteries, some the size of trucks, that are being tested.