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Could peat meet energy needs? (09/05)

Peat Resources wants the Ontario government to join Finland, Ireland and other European countries in burning peat as a clean alternative to coal.

Peat Resources wants the Ontario government to join Finland, Ireland and other European countries in burning peat as a clean alternative to coal.

In North America, most people will associate peat with the horticultural and gardening industries or premium Scotch whiskey.

Peat fuel has been used for centuries in Irish households and this less-polluting form of energy still plays a significant role for the production of economically priced power generation in Ireland, Finland, Russia and other eastern European countries.

In fact, Ireland has recently completed two new peat-fired power plants at a cost of $570 million US. The country is known as the “Celtic tiger” due to its booming economy and good business and energy policies.

Peat energy provides 13 percent of power needs for Ireland. In Finland, peat fills seven percent of the power demand as well as contributing about 19 percent of that country’s district heating requirements.

Finland is also a highly industrialized country with one of Europe’s highest standards of living. Fears about high energy costs and security of supply during the first oil price hikes of the early 1970s encouraged Finland to develop its own abundant peat fuel deposits.

Brownish-black in colour, peat is a material formed from the partial decomposition of plants under very wet, acidic conditions primarily found in bogs and fens. Canada has the world’s largest accessible peat fuel deposits. Most are located in northern and rural areas of the country and in many cases, in close proximity to impoverished Aboriginal communities.

According to a provincial government report, Northern Ontario’s vast boreal bogs have the energy equivalent of approximately 72 billion barrels of oil – our own version of the Alberta Tar Sands.

As part of its promise to eliminate coal-fired electricity production, the Ontario government recently announced the closure of Atikokan’s coal-fired power plant and the conversion of Thunder Bay’s coal facility to natural gas, a more expensive and scarcer fuel. This is an economically short-sighted mistake, as peat fuel could be inexpensively substituted for coal, lower pollution and provide much needed employment in the North. Peat can help the Ontario government keep its promise.

Peat has only 10 percent of the sulphur content of coal, virtually no mercury and produces less ash waste and dust emissions. U.S. and European scientists have classified peat as a slowly renewable biomass.

Every year in Canada, nature adds more than 100 million tonnes to the peat resource base.

The amount needed to fuel the two coal-fired power plants would be less than one percent of what nature adds each year.

Ontario-based Peat Resources Limited exploration efforts, centered near the Town of Upsala, approximately 100 kilometres from the two power plants, indicate enough peat fuel to support a processing operation of about one million tons per year. They are in the second phase of their program conducting environmental surveys, bulk sample testing and engineering studies.

Peat Resource’s conversion plans will include the restocking of fish like pickerel, the planting of wild rice for harvesting, building bird nesting sites and specific contouring of the landscape to establish thriving wildfowl population habitats.

The harvested peat from these deposits will be upgraded to an energy output similar to coal. This allows direct substitution for coal in thermal power plants as opposed to the lower-grade fuel used in Europe.

Peat fuel could be used in the Atikokan and Thunder Bay power plants with very little conversion expense. On the other hand, converting the Thunder Bay plant to natural gas is not economically feasible. Engineering consultants have confirmed that virtually none of the old plant can be used and that an entirely new power plant will have to be built at a cost of about $350 million or more. With ensuing provincial environmental assessments and regulatory hurdles, it will take a minimum of five years to complete. The longer the province waits, the more consumers will pay for power.

The Atikokan thermal plant was built in 1985 at a cost of about $750 million. With regular maintenance, the lifespan would be in excess of 40 years.

To close this facility would be a colossal waste of taxpayer’s money. In addition, t plant was originally built as a backup facility but for the past seven years has been running at 70 percent capacity, meaning that power is essential for the region.

In this age of global energy shortages and high prices, Ontario must develop its northern peat deposits to ensure a stable, sustainable and secure supply of affordable energy.

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant and freelance journalist in the employ of Peat Resources. He can be reached at