Transparent Energy Peat Production

4 December 2015 - , // Features
Ismo Myllylä
Editor, Viestintä-Paprico Oy, Finland

Have you ever been on a peatland? Untouched peatlands, known also as mires, are wetland ecosystems that are characterized by the accumulation of organic matter. Peat forms when organic matter is produced and deposited at a greater rate than it is decomposed. You may have come in contact with peat when handling growing media for flowers and vegetables, but peat is also used for energy.


The European Peat and Growing Media Association represents peat and growing media companies and associations at EU level. EPAGMA is committed to the highest environmental practices in peat extraction, to the responsible use of peat as a local energy source, and promoting the importance of growing media for horticultural plant production in Europe.

EPAGMA currently has 17 member companies and 9 associate members based in 14 European countries and has operations in all 28 Member States of the European Union.

Peat has traditionally been used as fuel in some Nordic countries, in Baltic countries and in Ireland. The thermal value and storability of peat has seen it become an industry that presents a domestic alternative to imported oil and coal in Estonia, Sweden, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland, while also creating badly needed jobs and development in sparsely populated rural areas. Local fuels mean security and safety when produced near to consumption of heat and power.

In the early 2000s, the producers and users of peat recognized that the world around the peat industry had changed in a way that threatened the business as a whole. Peat production was previously perceived as a threat to pristine mire habitats, and the climate impacts of energy peat became a subject of debate.

This called for clear and transparent guidelines to facilitate the responsible production of peat, a need that was met by the European Peat and Growing Media Association (EPAGMA) that published the Code of Practice for Responsible Peatland Management in 2009, followed in 2014 by the Energy Peat Transparency Policy 2014–2016.

Sod peat ridger in the peatfield of Ežerelis in Lithuania. Photo: Eugenijus Strašinskas.

These documents have been highly significant to peat production and its public acceptance, as EPAGMA’s members have committed to applying the principles in their operations. This has also led to the increased availability of information on peatlands, peat production and the use of peat for all parties interested in peat and assessing its use for energy.

Peat Production and Mire Habitats

Peatlands are rare in most European countries. Either there were none in the first place, or they were drained over time to serve the needs of agriculture, forestry and for settlements.

The situation is completely different in the EU countries that use peat for energy production, as they all have substantial peat areas. In Estonia, for example, peatlands account for 22% of the total land area, in Finland for nearly 30%, Ireland 17%, Sweden 16%, Latvia 10%, and Lithuania 10%.

Sotkamo power plant in Eastern Finland is an example of a combined heat and power (CHP) plant, where peat is co-fueled with wood. Photo: Teemu Tervo

Some peatlands have been drained in these six countries to create arable land or forests. One of the key principles of the Code of Practice for Responsible Peatland Management is that peat must only be produced in drained areas that, usually, have lost their nature value as a mire habitat. This ensures that peat production does not endanger peatlands in their natural state, most of which are also subject to separate conservation efforts.

Peat is the ideal growing medium

Energy production is just one way of taking advantage of the special characteristics of peat. The most widespread use of peat internationally is as a growing medium constituent. For instance, peat can also be used for soil improvement, and as litter used in animal husbandry.

Today, peat remains the main constituent for most growing media mixes as no other material offers the same combination of many favorable characteristics. It is favored due to its high water holding capacity and good aeration. As the pH and nutrient content of peat are low, almost any kind of growing medium can be produced with the addition of liming material and fertilizers.

Smart Peat Production Benefits the Climate

Allocating production to previously ditched peatlands is a good solution from the climate change perspective. Peat in ditched peatlands gradually oxidizes, releasing greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When used for energy, the same carbon dioxide is released in boilers when peat is extracted from those drained areas. Peat is used for electricity and/or heat production instead of simply escaping into the air. Moreover, if peat is used in a combined heat and power (CHP) plant and co-fueled with wood fuels, then the use of wood fuels becomes more efficient. This is because of the different properties of the fuels.

The land area underneath peatland is available for other uses after peat is extracted. Those areas are typically reforested, used for agriculture or rewetted. New vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide and a carbon sink is formed again on the former peatland site. Life-cycle assessments indicate that peat produced under these principles may be superior to coal from the climate perspective: the carbon dioxide emissions, based on measurements taken at the top of the boiler chimney, are similar, but when you account for peat production areas turning into carbon sinks, the peat’s CO2 emissions lifecycle can be lower than coal’s.

Västkärr is a part of Skagershultamossen in central Sweden near Örebro. This area has been restored to a wetland of importance for breeding and migrating birds such as swans, ducks and waders. The picture shows the restored peatland, the pristine mires in the background and an active peat production area to the left. Source: Hasselfors Garden arkiv.

Studies on the subject include the PhD thesis of Dr. Sanni Väisänen, Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland. According to comparison of the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of different energy sources, the climate impact of energy peat extracted from previously dried eutrophic peatland rich in nutrients is 72.7 g CO2-eq/MJ based on a life-cycle analysis (LCA), which contrasts with the combustion emission figure of 107.5. For reference, the LCA value for coal is 111 g CO2-eq/MJ. Swedish studies show even lower results for peat taken from forestry drained peatlands.

After-use of Peatlands

Transitioning of peat extraction sites after peat production to new uses is another key area of the Code of Practice for Responsible Peatland Management. This is important from the climate perspective and represents broader responsibility in the peat industry in the form of a commitment to not leaving behind scarred and unattractive landscapes.

Traditions for peatland use and ecological conditions vary between countries. After-use may include rehabilitation of the peatland ecosystem, alteration of land use to forestry, agriculture, recreation or urban development, or a combination of different land use forms. National legislation, land owners, and environmental policy guidelines set the outlines for possible after-use regimes in many countries.

As many peat extraction sites are located in low-lying areas, they begin to accumulate water naturally after peat production ends. This creates the opportunity for paludification and the creation of wetlands and lakes. This is done in Finland, Sweden and Ireland, where they often become very popular with bird species that require wetland habitats. Former peat extraction sites are often also located in remote areas, which makes them well-suited for wind and solar power generation, as shown in Ireland.

Information Widely Available to the Public

Operating in accordance with the Code of Practice for Responsible Peatland Management takes into consideration the environment and the EU countries’ goal to increase their energy self-sufficiency. Peat producers offer practically everyone the opportunity to verify that they genuinely operate according to these principles. Their commitments under the EPAGMA Energy Peat Transparency Policy 2014–2016 include the following:

  • Providing essential peat extraction information concerning production and environmental impacts for citizens by the end of 2016.
  • Displaying the environmental licenses of production sites and the environmental figures required by these licenses by the end of 2016.
  • Providing appropriate channels and opportunities for interacting with citizens as well as local and European authorities through events, websites and site visits.

Countries’ Stance on the Role of Peatlands

Ismo Myllylä
Editor, Viestintä-Paprico Oy, Finland

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