Energy lessons for Ontario from the Irish Celtic Tiger (March 3, 2006) – by Stan Sudol

This column was originally published in the March 3, 2006 issue of Northern Life.

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant who writes extensively on mining issues.

Ireland, well known as the “Celtic Tiger,” has become an industrial showcase for economists around the world. In the early 1970s, one of the most backward regions of Europe began a series of policy initiatives that transformed the country into a knowledge-based economy with a standard of
living higher than the United Kingdom and Canada.

One Irish initiative that could apply to Ontario was an energy policy committed to using indigenous fuel to help offset expensive imports of oil. That local energy source was peat fuel, and surprisingly the largest accessible deposits in the world are in Ontario.

Peat fuel has been a source of heat in Ireland for centuries. Its use for electricity started in the 1950s and supplied just under 40 percent of total power generation by the mid-1960s. Currently, peat fuel supplies about 12 percent of the country’s power needs. Last year, two new peat-fired power plants were opened at a cost of $570 million (US).

Brownish-black in color, peat is a material formed from the partial decomposition of plants under very wet, acidic conditions. It is usually made up of two separate layers, the top being lighter in colour, less decomposed and is used primarily for horticultural applications while the dark, dense lower layers are excellent for fuel. Peatlands are mostly found in temperate areas like Canada, Russia, and Northern Europe and in some tropical countries like Indonesia.

Evil supernatural places

Peatlands can be described as a wet spongy “floating carpet” of land and are often known as bogs, fens, mires, moors or in Canada muskeg.

Historically these areas have been seen as strange or evil supernatural places. Ancient “bog bodies” have been found in many northern European peatlands, perfectly preserved due to the acidic and anaerobic conditions. Dating back thousands of years, they were probably sacrificed to celebrate military victories or punished for ancient crimes.

Peat energy equals 72 billion barrels of oil

By far, Canada has the biggest deposits in the world, its peatlands covering approximately 170 million hectares. According to a provincial government report, Northern Ontario’s vast bogs have the energy equivalent of 72 billion barrels of oil – this province’s own version of the Alberta tar sands, none of which is being harvested for energy use.

The Hudson Bay lowlands, encompassing about one quarter of the province’s geography – north of the Precambrian Shield and hugging the southern shores of James and Hudson Bay – is one of the largest continuous expanses of peat bog outside of Siberia.

Finland and Ireland, two of the largest users of peat fuel for electricity, only contain respectively, about 10 million and 1.2 million hectares of peatlands.

There is strong opposition in Ireland, the United Kingdom and other European countries to the development of peatlands. However, many of these countries are densely populated, small in size and have been harvesting peat-fuel for centuries. Ireland can comfortably fit into Northern Ontario nine times over. Irish-based Bord na Mona, the sole producer and supplier of peat for energy purposes, owns about seven per cent of that country’s peatlands, which amount to just 80,000 hectares.

Fears about high power costs and security of supply during the oil price hikes of the early 1970s encouraged Finland to develop its own abundant peat fuel deposits.

Today, problems in oil and gas producing countries and the voracious energy appetites of China and India ensure that energy prices remain high and in short supply. We are consuming two barrels of oil for every one we find.

Closer to home, Ontario must replace its nuclear fleet, the source of almost half the province’s electricity within a decade and a half. Furthermore, the ruling Liberals are still committed to unplugging another 17 percent of the province’s power production in 2009 by closing the four coal-fired generating plants due to pollution concerns.

Cleaner than coal, cheaper than oil

Peat fuel is much cleaner than coal and cheaper than oil and gas. With inexpensive modifications peat fuel can be used by itself or in combination with coal in the existing coal-fired power plants already paid for by the taxpayers.

Peat fuel has only 10 percent of the sulphur content of coal, virtually no mercury and produces less ash waste and dust emissions. Ontario Hydro Research concluded that “an upgraded fuel peat can be effectively co-fired with propane or coal without any serious adverse affects.” It’s done in Europe to lower coal pollution.

Ontario-based Peat Resources Limited’s project, centered near the Town of Upsala, approximately 100 kilometers from the two Northern Ontario coal-fired plants at Atikokan and Thunder Bay, is focused on extensive environmental surveys, bulk sample testing and engineering studies. Now, in the second phase of its program, Peat Resources confirms enough peat fuel to sustain production of about one million tonnes per year for more than 20 years. To put this into perspective, every year in Canada, nature adds more than 100 million tonnes to the peat resource base.

In Europe, traditional dry harvesting methods involve stripping and draining large areas and using the sun to dry the peat. European peat-fired power plants use a lower grade peat then the upgraded variety necessary for Ontario’s coal-fired generators. Due to northwestern Ontario’s cooler climate and costs, Peat Resources intends to use wet harvesting methods to lessen environmental impacts.

Wet harvesting less environmental impact

Wet harvesting, when carried out on smaller parcels of land, allows easier management of water inflow and outflow and minimizes any negative effects on nearby lakes and drainage systems. The peat will then be mechanically dewatered before thermal upgrading for Ontario coal-fired power plants.

Wet harvesting from smaller parcels of land also allows quicker start-up of land reclamation activities when the harvest of peat is completed. No resource development is allowed in Ontario without restoration or closure plans. Peat Resource’s plans will include the stocking of sports fish, the planting of wild rice and specific contouring of the landscape to establish productive wetlands that support thriving wildfowl populations.

Environmental comparisons to the Alberta Tar Sands will be inevitable. However, peat fuel deposits are shallow, seldom deeper than 20 feet, compared to oily bitumen in northern Alberta which can entail monstrously huge open pits that can be up to 300 feet deep.

Ontario is currently studying possible green alternatives for the Atikokan coal plant. The potential biofuels include wood waste and peat fuel, however no decision will be made until late 2006.

Burning peat fuel does release carbon dioxide but this is balanced by the elimination of methane gas generation from the peat bogs. This greenhouse gas is 23 times more detrimental to the environment than CO2. In Europe, former peatlands have become carbon sinks through reforestation, agricultural use or restoration to former wetland uses.

Ontario desperate for power

In a recent report, the province’s own Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) stressed the need to keep the two southern Ontario coal-fired generating stations at Lambton and Nanticoke open or else potentially face power blackouts.

By replacing or mixing peat fuel with coal in our existing coal-fired power plants, pollution emissions will be significantly lowered, tax-funded infrastructure doesn’t need to be wasted, jobs are created in the north and the province has secure and inexpensive electricity.

There is no doubt that one of the most critical global issues of the 21st century will be the availability of secure and economic sources of energy.

What will economically replace coal in Ontario’s energy mix and still sustain the province’s manufacturing might?

Why is the Ontario government ignoring the largest accessible peat fuel deposits in the world?