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Plans for wind energy storage near Dallas Center scrapped

Dallas Center – After spending more than $8 million on surveys and tests that showed land west of Dallas Center to be unable to hold pressurized air for energy use, the Iowa Stored Energy Park voted Thursday to end its five-year effort to develop one of the world’s few systems to store energy for electricity.

Results of two geological tests showed underground formations unable to hold sufficient pressured air from nearby wind farms that would later be released to power an electric generator to provide electricity to the grid during peak hours.

The tests surprised promoters of the project, primarily Iowa’s municipal utilities and the Iowa Power Fund, which thought that the presence of a decades-old natural gas underground storage cavern in nearby Redfield would signify the geological worthiness of the formations under 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, which 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 Power Fund, which was ended by Gov. Terry Branstad that year after its formation by former Gov. Chet Culver. The Power Fund was authorized to spend up to $100 million over four years on various alternative and renewable energy projects.

The bulk of that Power Fund 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.

The research money would be just the beginning of what was planned to be a $400 million project that would include a newly-constructed electric generator that would tie into the state’s electric grid. Municipal utilities would have first call on the reserve electricity, which would be generated by air converted from electricity from wind farms, compressed into air and stored underground, then released back into the generator to be re-converted back to electricity.

The stored energy project was envisioned 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 director for the stored energy project, said much of the interest and atttention in electricity storage now has swung toward large batteries, some the size of trucks, that are being tested.