Goderich city council has approved a proposal by a Toronto company to pressurize an abandoned salt cavern and later release the compressed gas to create clean energy.

The decision comes despite some opposition from residents who said they were concerned not enough is known about the project – a first in the world.

The project is being touted by NRStor, a private Toronto company that operates a project near Guelph involving flywheels. Their flywheel project uses cheaper energy, for example at night, and rotates a steel drum which stores kinetic energy. Later, the spinning drum is rotated to release its energy and generate power.

Jason Rioux, vice president and chief development officer for NRStor, said they have been working with various government agencies to make sure the compressed air project is safe and viable.

"In the case of new technology, 'What does this mean for neighbours? How noisy will the project be? What does it look like? How big can it get,' were some concerns we did hear," Rioux said.

Hot air

Goderich is known for its rock salt mines. The cavern where this project would take place is located on property owned by Compass Minerals in a mine located 550 metres under Lake Huron – the largest underground salt mine in the world.

As part of the project, compressed air will be kept in the sealed cavern and heat generated from compressing the air will be stored in tanks. Later, when there's a need for energy, the compressed air will be heated using the stored heat and then released into a generator. The electricity created will feed into the provincial energy grid.

It's similar to projects in Germany and the U.S., Rioux said. However in other installations, natural gas is used to heat the compressed air.

"The big novelty for this project is the ability to store the heat while we're compressing, so we don't waste that heat, and then we use that heat for the power side of the project and not have any air emissions. So this project doesn't have any carbon emissions," he noted.

Researchers at the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy at the University of Waterloo are involved in the project.

Maurice Dusseault, a professor in engineering geology, said in a presentation last September the salt conditions along the Ontario coast of Lake Huron are ideal for massive renewable energy storage.

He argued the project is environmentally sustainable and it would benefit the province's power grid. 

Video: Stan Spacek addresses Goderich council April 3, 2017

'Needs to be explained'

Goderich family doctor Stan Spacek has raised concerns about the project and what it could mean for the community. He said too little information is known about the project and in April, he asked city council to reject the proposal.

"It is clear to me that much more needs to be explained about this project, including its immediate and longer term consequences and risks," Spacek said in a release after his presentation to council.

The projects in Germany and U.S. are in remote and isolated areas, he argued.

"This type of project does not belong in an urban centre," he said, adding the land where the heating facility would be built should instead be reforested and restored to its natural habitat.

Rioux said they've heard the concerns of residents, but they've been working with the provincial government and UW experts to ensure what they're doing won't negatively affect the community or the environment.