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This article is being posted for archival purposes. Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant who writes extensively on mining issues. [email protected]
Not since the oil price hikes of the 1970s has Ontario’s energy future been so precarious. Dwindling North American gas supplies, Middle-East turmoil and enormous energy demands from Chinas are all causing shortages and price increases of oil, gas and coal.
To keep a green election promise to reduce pollution, the Ontario Liberals are committed to closing five coal-fired power plants, which supply 25 per cent of the province’s electricity.
The one Ontario fuel source that could help the province weather the energy turmoil of the next few years is all but ignored. That energy source is peat, a relatively economical alternative that produces significantly less pollution than coal. A 1982 provincial report indicated that Ontario’s peat resources have the energy equivalent of approximately 26 billion barrels of oil – this province’s version of the Alberta tar sands.
Peat is located primarily in the world’s northern temperate latitudes. It is usually found in undrained stagnant ponds called bogs that produce large amounts of methane, a gas that has 21 times the negative greenhouse impact of carbon dioxide. The vast boreal bogs of northern Ontario contain both the horticultural variety commonly used in gardens and fuel peat used in power generation.
Peat energy provides 10 per cent of power needs in Ireland, 7 per cent in Finland as well as supplying about 19 per cent of that country’s district heating requirements.
The Irish company Bord na Mona completed a new peat-fueled power station in 2000, while Vapo Oy is the leading producer of peat-generated electricity and heat in Finland. In Europe, former bogs have been converted to agricultural uses, reforested or returned to their original state.
Canada has the world’s largest supply of peat resources, estimated to be 41 per cent of the world’s total, half of which is located in northern Ontario. None of this valuable resource is used to produce fuel peat.
In the early 1980s, the Ontario government extensively studied the energy potential of peat. At that time, the low cost and abundant supplies of oil, gas, coal and other forms of energy mad its use uneconomical.
Times have certainly changed as the price of traditional energy sources have skyrocketed. In addition, peat fuel has only 10 per cent of the sulphur content of imported coal and virtually no mercury emissions.
The provincial Liberals have suggested that they may convert some of the coal-fired power plants to gas. While technically feasible, this would entail major costly alterations and time delays. Coal-fired power plants can use peat with minor alterations. Peat can also be used in conjunction with coal, the resulting chemical reactions significantly lowering pollution.
The immense boreal bogs of northwestern Ontario contain approximately 7 billion tones of peat fuel. Coal-fired power plants at Thunder Bay and Atikokan, scheduled to close by 2007, are relatively close to the peat deposits.
Both of these power plants import 1.4 million tones of coal annually.
Sustainable development of this important natural resource could establish a thriving industry and provide thousands of jobs in the northwestern Ontario economy.
Ontario is committed to subsidizing alternative energy production to make up for the closing of coal-fired power plants. Wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources are being promoted to help solve Ontario’s energy crisis. Peat fuel is not one of the green alternatives mentioned and would require no public subsidy to produce.
Converting Ontario’s coal-powered plants to peat would save the taxpayers billions of dollars, ensure energy security for the economic engine of the country, reduce pollution and provide much needed employment in northern Ontario.
Why is this viable alternative being ignored?