Peat as an Energy Resource


Since World War II there has been a big change in attitudes towards the use of peat as an energy source and the role of peatlands as a natural resource. In the 1950´s peat was still regarded as an important fuel in many countries in Europe, and large development programmes were being undertaken in Ireland, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Finland and in the member states of the then Soviet Union.

A good example of the importance of peat in energy production at that time was a decision made during the World Power Conference held in London in 1950 to maintain permanent contacts among peatmen interested in international co-operation. Through the initiative of this group and the generous support of the Irish state-owned peat company Bord na Móna, it was decided to hold an International Peat Congress in Dublin, Ireland in 1954. This plan was realised and later another International Peat Congress was organised in the then Leningrad in 1963. As a result of this development the International Peat Society was inaugurated in 1968 in Quebec, Canada in connection with the 3rd International Peat Congress.

In the 1960´s the availability of cheap oil and coal started to affect the competitiveness of peat as fuel and the role of energy peat began to decrease in these countries, except for Ireland and the Soviet Union, where peat continued to play an important role as a fuel in power generation and also in small local consumption. Numerous peat briquette factories were in operation in Ireland, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Estonia.

At the end of the 1960´s and at the beginning of the 1970´s fuel prices started to increase, on the basis of which the first national energy peat development programme was adopted in Finland in 1971. The Government of Finland approved a peatland reclamation policy according to which production of energy peat was planned to be raised to 10 million cubic metres till 1980. This target was doubled in 1974 after the Middle East war, as a result of which oil prices increased in the world market. The Finnish Parliament allocated the required financial resources for the purchase of peatlands and for the hiring of a labour force. As a result of intensive work, the target was met for the first time in 1986, when 20.4 million cubic metres of energy peat (1.7 mtoe) was produced in Finland.

The 1970´s meant a turning point in peat usage. In Western Europe large mire areas had been reclaimed during past generations for agricultural use, as a result of which the number of pristine mires was decreasing with ever-increasing speed. In some countries large areas of peatlands were drained after World War II for growing forests. Peatlands were particularly effectively drained in Finland, where during the 1950´s to 1980´s almost 50% of the country´s original 10.4 million hectares of pristine mires were drained for forestry purposes. Simultaneously with this development the use of peat as a growing medium was gradually increasing, which added to the pressure, especially on large pristine ombrotrophic type of bogs, the number of which was getting scarce in Central European countries.

In Canada and in the USA some studies were made in the 1970´s and 1980´s to evaluate the use of peat as fuel. The outcome of these studies was that peat is not competitive, owing to the availability of cheap oil, coal and natural gas in those countries. Only in some areas in the midlands of Canada is peat used today on a minor scale as a local fuel. In Canada and the USA peat is used as growing media and today Canada is the leading country in the world in terms of volume of horticultural peat produced. This has led to the fact that Canada is also one of the major players in the world community as far as environmental issues related to the use of peat and peatlands are concerned.

There have also been some attempts to develop the use of peat as fuel in Central Africa and South-East Asia. In Burundi, for example, minor peat operations have been established with the aid of West European countries. In Indonesia and Malaysia, where there are huge peat resources, fuel peat operations were developed in the 1980´s and 1990´s. Owing to economic difficulties in that area these operations have been closed for the present and no major peat development programmes are being conducted for the time being.

Figure 8.1: Distribution of Mires (Source: Global Peat Resources, Eino Lappalainen, International Peat Society, 1996, Appendix 4
ISBN 9529074875)

The existence of the South-East Asian peat resources has come to the attention of the world community, owing to immigration programmes for which purpose huge areas of peatlands have been drained for agricultural purposes. One example is the famous "Mega-Rice" land conversion programme, commenced in 1996 in Central Kalimantan, which covers about one million hectares of peatlands drained and cleared from forestry for rice cultivation. Immigration programmes with drainage of peatlands and cutting of timber from peatland forests, followed by slash burning, have caused huge fires in that area, as a result of which thick layers of peat swamps have been burnt to ash from top to bottom.

Environmental considerations

Although more than half of the mires within the European Union are still pristine, the development mentioned above has led to strong anti-peat campaigns, especially in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany. For instance in Switzerland all remaining peatlands have been protected and no peat harvesting is possible any more. Also in the North European countries, nature conservation organisations and environmental authorities carefully monitor the environmental impacts of peat production and use, and new restrictions are imposed almost annually, as a result of ever-tightening environmental legislation. The role of the European Commission in environmental issues concerning peat has increased, especially after Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995, with repercussions in both countries.

Major environmental concerns regarding the use of energy peat are principally the same as those for other fuels. Worry about the adequacy of peat resources and the sustainability of their use has activated nature conservation bodies to increase the number of protected mires, and special mire conservation programmes have been developed in different countries. In Finland, for instance, this discussion was most intensive in the 1970´s, when national peat development programmes were started and the peat industry was branded as the destroyer of Finnish peatlands. This fear was gradually overcome, as people started to realise that less than one percent of the total peatland area was needed for the peat industry during the future decades, at the same time as the protected mire area was in practice increasing to over one million hectares. In Central Europe the situation is worse because peatlands have been an object of human impact for hundreds or even thousands of years and certain types of pristine mires may be relatively scarce compared with Northern and Eastern Europe - to say nothing of Canada, where there is the largest concentration of pristine mires in the western world, or of Siberia in the east, where huge land areas are covered with thick and untouched peat deposits.

Drainage is a specific feature of peat usage because over 90% of the weight of natural peat mass is water. Especially at the initial stage of ditching, a lot of water is released and directed by the force of gravitation to streamlets, rivers and lakes, carrying along solid substances and nutrients. Sophisticated mechanical and chemical techniques have been developed to reduce emissions from the drainage network and an acceptable purification level has been achieved under normal working conditions. Water legislation varies from country to country, but the new EU Framework Directive in the Field of Water Policy (No 2000/60/EC) will no doubt in the long run lead to harmonisation of water quality requirements, including within the peat industry.

Emissions from the combustion of peat are for the present well controlled owing to the relatively low natural SO2 content of peat and the use of new boiler techniques, as a result of which NOx emissions have been kept at a reasonable level. Changing over from oil and coal to peat has significantly reduced the SO2 load in towns where there are large CHP plants using peat as major fuel. According to the present emission limits there has not been a need to use chemical purification systems. Early in 2001, a proposal was being discussed in the European Commission to adopt a Council directive on the limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from large combustion plants (11070/1/2000 – C5-0562/2000 – 1998/0225(COD)), which may bring with it a need for changes to the present peat fired-plants.

During the past decade the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) problem has become a major issue in discussions concerning the environmental impacts of energy production. In this debate the peat industry has been the loser, because peat is classified as a fossil fuel and CO2 emissions released during its combustion are taken into account in full in the calculations of the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). This classification and calculation model has been strongly criticised, especially by the peat industry of Finland and Sweden, because it does not take into account annual growth of peat and the possibility of producing biomass on cut-over peatlands. Thanks to the report "The Role of Peat in Finnish Greenhouse Gas Balances", commissioned by the Finnish Ministry of Trade and Industry and produced by three internationally-recognised peatlands and climate change experts from the USA, the UK and Finland, the attitude towards peat has changed and approaches that of the peat industry. In the report it is stated that peat could be classified as a biomass fuel, so as to distinguish it from biofuels (such as wood) and from fossil fuels (such as coal). According to the report, peat can be regarded as a slowly renewable natural resource. In November 2000 the European Parliament amended Article 21 of the Council Directive on the promotion of electricity from renewable energy sources in the international electricity market, adding peat to the list of renewable energy sources. The fate of the amendment is unknown for the present, because at the time of writing the decision-making process is unfinished. In the countries where peat still plays an important role as a local energy source, great attention is nowadays being paid to the process of peat classification and to how greenhouse gas emissions from peat combustion are taken into account in the calculations of the IPCC.

Peat as an energy source

Although environmental aspects nowadays play a central role in social and commercial decision-making processes, they are only a part of the totality, which includes many other aspects. In the White Book on "An Energy Policy for the European Union" the Commission emphasises that in the energy policy of the European Community market integration, sustainable economic growth, job creation and prosperity for its citizens have to be taken into account. An especially important principle of the EU’s energy policy is security of supply, as well as social and economic cohesion.

Peat as a local "biomass" fuel meets most of the demands the Commission has set for the energy policy of the European Community. Peat is produced mostly in remote areas where there is a chronic lack of industrial jobs. Powerful tractors typical in peat harvesting can be used outside the production season in agriculture, road maintenance and in wood transportation. New methods have been developed to establish "biomass terminals" on peat production sites, where wood is collected from the surrounding forests, crushed into chips, mixed with peat and transported to CHP plants. There have been experiments in drying wood chips with the aid of solar energy during the summer on the surface of the peat bog and collecting the air-dried wood chips from the peat fields with the same machines as for peat.

Especially in Finland, attention has been paid to co-combustion of peat and wood. It has been found that the chemical properties of wood fuel alone may cause certain problems in boilers. Burning peat together with wood helps to control the combustion process and reduce corrosion in the superheater tubes. This is mainly due to the mineral components of peat, which are proportionally higher than those of wood. Some advantage is gained with respect to SO2 emissions when peat is used simultaneously with wood. Many boilers which have been originally dimensioned for combustion of peat cannot meet full capacity with wood only. Thus, a successful increase in the use of wood as fuel in CHP plants depends on the use of peat as well. There are also good reasons to have alternative fuels available on commercial grounds and for security of supplies.

According to statistical data collected by the International Peat Society, energy peat production in Europe in 1999 was 21.5 million tonnes of air-dried peat. Finland was a leading energy peat producer in terms of volume, with some 7.5 million tonnes of production. The second in rank was Ireland with 4.7 million tonnes and the third the Russian Federation with 3.7 million tonnes of production. Belarus, Sweden and Estonia followed as the next largest producers. Compared with the situation in 1990, the use of energy peat has slightly decreased, but the same countries are involved as in 1990. Energy peat is mainly used locally, but small amounts of peat briquettes have been exported from Estonia to Sweden and Finland, sod peat from Estonia, Scotland and Finland to Sweden and milled peat from Finland to Sweden. There have also been experiments in importing a few parcels of milled fuel peat from Russia into Finland. The total production area of energy peat in Europe was 113 000 ha. Including the USA, Canada and South Africa, horticultural peat was produced on an area of 100 000 ha. IPS data show that there were over 800 companies producing peat in 1999, with a labour force contributing an average of about 32 000 man-years.

Raimo Sopo
Secretary General 1992-2004
International Peat Society

Editors’ note: The production data in Table 8.3, which are based as far as possible on questionnaires returned by WEC Member Committees, are broadly compatible with the IPS data, after allowing for differences in reporting conventions (e.g. for Ireland).

Types of Peat Fuel

There are three main forms in which peat is used as a fuel:

Sod peat - slabs of peat, cut by hand or by machine, and dried in the air; mostly used as a household fuel;

Milled peat - granulated peat, produced on a large scale by special machines; used either as a power station fuel or as raw material for briquettes;

Peat briquettes - small blocks of dried, highly compressed peat; used mainly as a household fuel.


Peat is a soft organic material consisting of partly decayed plant matter together with deposited minerals.

For the purposes of Table 8.1, Peatland is defined as follows: for land to be designated as peatland, the depth of the peat layer, excluding the thickness of the plant layer, must be at least 20 cm on drained, and 30 cm on undrained land.

Peatland reserves are most frequently quoted on an area basis because initial quantification normally arises through soil survey programmes or via remotely-sensed data. Even where deposit depths and total peat volumes are known, it is still not possible to quantify the reserves in energy terms because the energy content of in-situ peat depends on its moisture and ash contents. However, the organic component of peat deposits has a fairly constant anhydrous, ash-free calorific value of 20-22 MJ/kg, and if the total quantity of organic material is known, together with the average moisture and ash contents, then the peat reserve may be equated with standard energy units.

The definitions applicable to Table 8.2 are as follows:

Proved amount in place is the tonnage that has been carefully measured and assessed as exploitable under present and expected local economic conditions, with existing available technology.

Proved recoverable reserves is the tonnage within the proved amount in place that is recoverable under present and expected local economic conditions, with existing available technology.

Estimated additional amount in place is the indicated and inferred tonnage additional to the proved amount in place which is thought likely to exist in unexplored extensions of known deposits or has been inferred from geological evidence. Speculative amounts are not included.

Estimated additional amount recoverable is the tonnage within the estimated additional amount in place which geological and engineering information indicates with reasonable certainty might be recovered in the future.

Areas of peatland at end 1999 (XLS)
Peat resources and reserves 1999 (XLS)
Peat production and comsumption for fuel 1999 (XLS)

Source: 2001 WEC Survey of Energy Resources published by the World Energy Council