“Power and Heat from Peat – Peat in Finnish Energy Policy” (Part 1 of 6)

While most of the publication “Power and Heat from Peat – Peat in Finnish Energy Policy” is written in the Finnish language, the following six English summaries give valuable insight into this largely unknown energy source. Vapo Oy is the largest producer of Peat Fuel in Finland.

Northern Ontario has some of the largest deposits of peat fuel in the world. The North’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. Current provincial resources policies are very hostile to the sustainable development of this strategic energy source. – Stan Sudol

Power and Heat from Peat

The use of peat for energy has a long and colourful history. The attitudes towards peat have ranged from confidence to criticism – often based on a vague understanding of how peat can be utilised.

Vapo’s 70th Anniversary Commemorative Book “Power and Heat from Peat – Peat in Finnish Energy Policy” takes the reader through yet unexplored paths of history and describes how peat has become an important part of Finland’s energy supply.

The book also describes the behind-the-scenes development of the energy policy, the dialogue between the various interest groups, the development of environmental protection methods, and the internationalisation of the peat debate. It draws a picture of Finland’s energy policy and describes how the policy has been influenced by security, economic and environmental considerations in the various stages of history. The book is based on extensive archival research material and on interviews of energy policy decision makers.

Peat has been part of the everyday life of the Finns for 70 years – by Matti Hilli, Managing Director, Vapo Oy.

For 70 years, Vapo Oy and its predecessors have been working to secure Finland’s energy supplies. Along the way there have been highlights, crises and of course routine, day-to-day work. First a government body and then a limited company, it all began during the Second World War, when the job of the Finnish State Railways Fuel Office was to procure firewood to heat government facilities. At its peak, this wartime  procurement activity employed up to 30,000 men and over 11,000 horses. The war had closed the borders and fuel had to be sourced within Finland. Therefore self-sufficiency in energy supplies was high and the Fuel Office had an important role in keeping it that way.

The post-war period was a time of reconstruction and rapid industrialization. At the same time energy usage became dominated by oil. Bilateral trade with the Soviet Union was one of the reasons for this. Goods were exchanged for oil.

In 1945 our organization changed its name to the Finnish State Fuel Office (Vapo). By 1963 the railways were largely diesel-powered, and therefore Vapo was separated from the State Railways (VR), and its main function was now strategic liquid fuel reserves and energy supplies in times of crisis.

When the international energy crisis broke out at the turn of the 1970s, Finland was precariously dependent on imported energy. Higher imported energy prices and energy shortages were quickly reflected in the everyday life of the Finns. Energy-saving measures were introduced and it was considered essential to make greater use of domestic sources of energy. And so the government turned to Vapo to develop peat as an energy source. The technology and methods were unknown and all the skills had to be acquired very quickly to meet the ambitious production targets set by the government. The whole of the 1970s was taken up by the launching and development of peat production and making peat known as a product.

Big changes in the management of environmental matters dominated the 1980s. New legislation and official guidelines made the processing of peat production permits the demanding procedure it is today affecting every peatland. The biggest business-related changes in the1980s had to do with the commissioning of Vapo’s first power plants. Our objective was to raise the degree of processing.

Vapo’s own energy generation increased further in the 1990s and at the same time new production chains for both wood energy and energy crops were developed. The company’s sawmills were upgraded to make them more efficient. Vapo Biotech, a new unit specializing in environmental rehabilitation and waste processing, started up.

International expansion brought the start of business operations in Sweden in the 1990s. Later on the company expanded to other countries round the Baltic Sea. In all countries the strategy was to generate local energy for local needs and at the same time to increase the countries’ energy self-sufficiency.

Pellets, and the range of pellet applications, were introduced to the Finnish market later in the 2000s. Pellets are a substitute for oil. For energy resource procurement and environmental reasons, energy peat usage in district heat generation and industry developed into combined wood and peat usage. Many locations still substitute coal with a mixture of wood and peat. From there, the business has consolidated in its present diverse form. Throughout Vapo’s history, adapting the business to the needs of the time and improving energy self-sufficiency have been and still are our important task.

The recent public debate surrounding peat has been critical and to some extent biased. In particular, there has been a desire to portray watercourse protection, natural values and peat as being in conflict. The peat sector, however, has done much to improve its own environmental protection.

Amongst livelihoods in sparsely populated areas, ours is the one that is subjected to monitoring by analyses and studies. We do not use any fertilizers or additives in our production. When a new area is taken into production we thoroughly investigate what natural values there are in the area, what type of a watercourse the run-off water will flow into and what impacts our activity will have on the immediate vicinity. Our customers speak highly of peat, which is very positive. Energy peat contributes to a genuine increase in wood energy usage and a wood-peat mixture can replace coal. The mixture will continue to be an important fuel heating the homes of upwards of a million Finns.

Peat is also used by horticultural producers, both as growing medium and as fuel, to grow vegetables and flowers. Farms use peat as animal litter, whilst peat manure is a valuable source of extra nutrients to spread on fields. In the process, the watercourse load from animal husbandry is also reduced. Further applications include balneological peat, preventing oil slicks, manufacturing cosmetics and textiles. At the same time untapped peat stocks are increasing, whilst helping the atmosphere by sequestering carbon dioxide. It should also be borne in mind that peat transport chains are short compared to those for coal, for example.

Peat, then, has many uses and all the benefit and employment derived from it boost our economy. As a local natural resource, peat will also be available in times of crisis. We at Vapo are putting peat to work, meeting the needs and wants of society at all times. Peat, therefore, is very much a part of the day-to-day life of all Finns. It provides heat, light, food and prosperity.

See Part 2 of 6 in next posting.