December 13, 2007

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Peat moves from the bog to the generating station

Hamilton, ON -   For hundreds of years, peat has been used in Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Belarus and Russia as a fuel source for thermal generating stations. Now Peat Resources Ltd. is looking at replacing the coal that fuels the province’s Atikokan Generating Station in northwestern Ontario with peat and wood.

Mike Waddington, associate professor in the Department of Geography & Earth Sciences at McMaster University, is leading the team that will assess the environmental impacts of using the new bio-fuel. He says Canada is a virtual peat paradise.

Canada has the world’s second-largest supply of peat; most of it around the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands and in Northern Ontario.

Says Waddington: “There are about 113-million hectares of peat in Canada—about 11percent of the country’s land—and if peat does become the preferred fuel of Atikokan’s Generating Station then it would use only a very small portion, about 100 hectares a year, of our total resource.”

Waddington’s first job is to determine the environmental impacts of the proposal. The greenhouse gas emissions, changes to water quantity and quality after the peat is removed from the peatlands; the rehabilitation of the peatlands, the return of process water to the peatlands, and the mercury relationships in the peatlands, all need to be explored, he says.

The process of harvesting peat for fuel involves removing the top layer of the peat, about 30 centimetres deep, and extracting from the deeper and older peat, material that is several thousand years old. Peat is a slowly renewing biofuel, says Waddington, and studies in Europe suggest it takes between 300 and 1,000 years to renew.

In Scandinavia, Ireland and Russia peat was harvested using a dry technique that meant draining the wetlands prior to removing the peat. This method raised environmental concerns about water quality and flash flooding.

“We know how to restore dry harvest peatlands” says Waddington, “however, with Peat Resources Ltd., we’ll be using an innovative wet harvest approach in which the peat is pumped to the processing facility through a pipeline. Once the peat is removed, the water that was removed from the peat extraction will be returned from the processing facility to the peatland.”

The proposed peat biofuel project is not the only water and peat-related energy concern in Canada.

“We’re already encountering some potential issues that will need to be hashed out,” says  Waddington. “For instance, the Alberta oil sands are located under peatlands, and the hydroelectric reservoirs around James Bay region in Quebec are flooded peatlands. The question arises: Do you intrude on one resource to make room for another? It’s a tricky question.”

With 15 years experience in peatland restoration, Waddington will also be focused on how to remediate the peatlands and return them to as close to their pre-extraction state as possible. Blueberries, cranberries and wild rice are possible crops that could thrive in former peatlands. 

The research for this project is being funded by the Ontario Centre of Excellence and Peat Resources Ltd.

McMaster University, a world-renowned, research-intensive university, fosters a culture of innovation, and a commitment to discovery and learning in teaching, research and scholarship. Based in Hamilton, the University, one of only four Canadian universities to be listed on the Top 100 universities in the world, has a student population of more than 23,000, and an alumni population of more than 130,000 in 128 countries.