Maine's peat bogs set to generate electricity and controversy
Peat. It has long been used as a fuel in Ireland, Sweden, and the Soviet Union.Skip to next paragraph
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Although there are large deposits of peat in the United States, they have never been tapped as a commercial fuel. The reason? It takes 150,000 tons of peat to produce the energy generated by 100,000 tons of coal. This low heat value, and the high cost of drying, have kept peat from gaining any popularity here.
Now, however, the first North American peat-generated electric power plant is about to be completed, with production scheduled to begin in December. Situated in Deblois, a rural area of Maine about an hour from the coast, the Down East Peat LP plant is a 125-foot steel structure sitting in the middle of the 1,200-acre Denbo Heath peat bog. When the plant is at full capacity, it will produce 22.8 megawatts of electricity hourly, enough to light a town of 6,000 people.
The $55 million project has taken six years to complete and was the idea of Larry Gerahian, a coal geologist from Texas who became interested in peat while working for International Paper Company in Maine. Mr. Gerahian owns 100 percent of Down East Peat's parent company, Peat Products America Inc.
Although he was unsuccessful in raising money in Maine for the project, he finally persuaded a Houston pipeline company, a New Jersey utility, a Belgian turbine manufacturer, and a New York investment company to cooperate in building the plant.
Not everyone is happy about the power plant, however. ``We are very much opposed to the depletion of wetlands of any kind, and bogs do fall in this category,'' says Charles Miller, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation. ``Bogs are one of the most productive wildlife habitats. Peat bogs may not support waterfowl, but they do support very interesting flora, as well as small birds, such as warblers. Our concern is that songbirds and small migratory birds are disappearing.''
Karen Knuuti, an enforcement officer with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, is also concerned about the loss of bogs. But Ms. Knuuti says the company has obtained the necessary government approvals, and now her job is to ensure that Down East Peat conforms with environmental regulations.
Because peat bogs are considered wetlands, the US Army Corps of Engineers must review any proposed project that affects them. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, under the Clean Water Act, can veto corps decisions, but rarely does so.
Knuuti says the corps gave the go-ahead to Down East Peat ``despite a finding that significant habitat would be destroyed, because the public benefit in jobs and electricity outweighed the environmental concerns.''
In response, Gerahian points out that there are 2 to 3 million acres of wetlands in Maine and a million acres of peat bogs. ``It is hard to believe that by disturbing one bog we can possibly be accused of destroying all the wetlands in Maine,'' he says.
``We shouldn't destroy all the wetlands,'' he agrees, ``but five or even 10 plants would not come close to endangering the bogs.'' And, he adds, ``We are leaving the last two feet of peat untouched and returning the land to a bog when we are finished.''
Peat is the first stage in the formation of coal. It is a spongy, brown mass of layers of decomposing plants, rather like a giant, wet compost heap. Over millions of years, a peat bog compresses until it becomes coal.