On a pie chart of the energy mix in Europe, peat hardly appears as a line, dominated by more traditional forms of nuclear and renewable energies, and yet this muddy moist compost-like dirt is gaining traction in being a complementary and responsible fuel for heating and electricity together with local biomass fuels like wood.

Prevalent in marshes and bogs of northern European countries with significant rainfall, Ireland for example exploits 7% of its peatlands of a total national land area made up of 17% peatland, according to Pat Fitzgerald, Chairman of the European Peat and Growing Media Association (EPAGMA).

Peat mound in Tartu, Estonia. Source: Revolve Media

Peat mound in Tartu, Estonia. Source: Revolve Media

Confronted with strong environmental organizations that claim disturbing or exploiting the natural marshes and mires destroys the ecology, peat energy advocates assert an economic and environmental arguments in favor of creating jobs and using only those ditched peatlands that leek carbon dioxide because of the oxidation of peat.

Claes Rülcker, Managing Director of the Swedish Peat Association claims that there are 2 million hectares of “ditched” peatlands in Sweden, emitting more gases than all the cars in Sweden; if exploited properly in a controlled and responsible manner then emissions would be decreased and energy independence would increase. In Finland, there are some 5 million hectares of ‘ditched” peatlands, according to Claes Rülcker.

Finland is one of the highest energy consumption countries and user of wood biomass and peat in Europe with 30,000 people employed by the sector. Potentially 15,000 more jobs could be created from increased use of wood and peat energy. Already, 1 million Finns or 20% of the population have their homes, schools or offices heated fully or partly with energy peat, wood being main fuel in most cases.

Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant in Tartu, Estonia. Source: Revolve Media

Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant in Tartu, Estonia. Source: Revolve Media

In Estonia the population is only about 1.3 million inhabitants of whom 82,000 get heat energy from peat every year. In the south-eastern city of Tartu, the combined heat and power (CHP) plant run by Fortum provides heat and electricity to the city with energy from wood chips and peat.

The 40-50% moisture of peat makes it an ideal fuel for boilers. From the 149 hectare peat field outside Tartu, about 10 centimetres is exploited per year of a 6-meter-deep bog providing about 100,000 MWh per year for over 10 years.”

But what is peat? Is it an alternative clean biofuel? Is it biomass? Is it a renewable source of energy?

The answer to this fundamental question will determine the direction the natural energy source takes in the years to come. If proven to be responsible and better for climate than imported fossil fuels, the peat industry could tap into much needed European and national subsidies to develop efficient exploitation of the mud; if defined more as a clean fuel, it could also rely on expanding development measures with other corporations.

Either way, the use and treatment of water remains a fundamental and often overlooked preoccupation to advance the ‘ecosystems services’ argument in favor of peat production. If water usage and the full-loop life-cycle of the ecosystem services can be explained and depicted more clearly, then the “ideological energy” argument pitting wind for example as “good” against peat as a “villain” could become more balanced.

Former Member of the European Parliament, Eija-Riitta Korhola, claims that a full “life-cycle evaluation is needed” to determine more precisely the actual energy consumption behind the exploitation of renewables. How energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly is a multi-million euro wind farm in the Highlands of Scotland or in the North Sea?

The debate is open and peat is undeniably staying in the energy mix and gaining market share, humbly but surely, still beneath straw usage for energy efficient homes for example, but contributing nonetheless to increasing energy independence and thus security of supply, which remain fundamental pillars of the European Energy Union.

Of the other Baltic countries, Latvia imports over 70% of its energy resources from Russia. And Lithuania, despite desperately developing energy corridors with Poland over land and with sub-sea cables to Sweden, still relies almost 100% on Russia still for oil and gas.

According to former European Commission energy expert, Derek Taylor, the European Union spends half a billion a year on importing fuels: Europe imports 60% of its coal consumption from Russia, Colombia and the USA; and imports 65% of its gas and oil consumption from Russia and Norway.

Increasing local supplies of energy and thus improving the security of electricity remains primordial for the European project to integrate the energy market. Along with other lesser known source of energy, peat can play an incremental role in providing local jobs and energy that are definitely more sustainable than fracking for shale gas or digging for coal.

For more information, visit: the European Peat and Growing Media Association

Writer: Stuart Reigeluth is founder of Revolve Media