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ELIMINATING PEAT from the Irish energy picture sounds more than a little heretical. But even Ireland’s Bord na Móna, its state-owned peat harvesting and energy company, is in favor of phasing out this traditional fuel. Science, published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, gives details in Emily Toner’s December 14, 2018, article “Ireland Slashes Peat Power to Lower Emissions.”

Peat bogs are wetlands of moss and heather, beneath which lie deep layers of partially decayed moss and other plant matter. Peat, this underlying rich black soil, has been used for centuries to warm Irish homes and fire its whiskey distilleries.

Large-scale peat harvesting: Drained land is stripped of its moss and heather to uncover the carbon-rich peat. Image from Science, December 14, 2018.

In fact, Ireland has little natural resources of coal, oil, or natural gas. Thus, peat is also a ready fuel for power plants. Emily Toner notes, “Peat power peaked in the 1960s, providing 40 percent of Ireland’s electricity. But peat is particularly polluting. Burning it for electricity emits more carbon dioxide than coal, and nearly twice as much as natural gas.”

As an example, Toner writes, “In 2016, peat generated nearly 8 percent of Ireland’s electricity, but was responsible for 20 percent of that sector’s carbon emissions.”

Nor is replacing peat a straightforward answer: As Toner notes, “A decade ago, Bord na Móna began to cofuel a peat-burning station with mixtures of biomass including a grass called miscanthus, olive pits, almond shells, palm kernel shells, and beet pulp, much of it imported from all over the world. Because biomass takes up carbon from the atmosphere as it grows, the European Union counts it as a carbon-neutral, renewable resource—even though transportation, processing, and land-use costs make it less so.”

Peat is cut from the land. Its muddy bricks are then stacked to dry. Image from McCarthy’s Homevalue.

Also, the Irish continue to heat their homes with more than 600,000 hectares (2300 sq. miles) of peat bogs, and peat harvesting itself is hardly benign: The bog is first drained and stripped of its moss and heather to reveal the underlying peat. This stripping accelerates the decomposition of exposed organic matter and releases carbon into the atmosphere.

Toner writes, “A 2013 study of Irish peatland carbon emissions, published in Irish Geography, found that each hectare [about 2.5 acres] of industrially drained and stripped peatland emit 2.1 tons of carbon per year—the equivalent of driving a car 30,000 kilometers [more than 18,600 miles]. And that’s before the harvested peat is burned.”

“Rehabilitating the harvested peatland, however, is a clear plus for climate,” Toner observes. “Those emissions cease as soon as drains are blocked and the water table rises to resaturate the peat, cutting off the oxygen.”

Thus far, about 23 percent of peatland under Bord na Móna management has been rehabilitated. There are multiple benefits to this: reducing emissions, restoring plant and animal life, and sequestering future carbon. Tony Lowes, a founder of Friends of the Irish Environment in Eyeries, says, “Peatlands are our rainforests.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

One comment on “BEGONE, YE AULD SOD

  1. sabresoftware
    December 27, 2018

    Eliminating certain sources of energy effectively requires that there be
    alternate sources that are as effective at a competitive cost, and which don’t require hidden environmental impacts such as transporting fuels large distances. The carbon footprint of say natural gas might be significantly higher if the gas needs to be processed (liquified) and transported long distances.

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