Maine's peat bogs set to generate electricity and controversy
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The bog that Down East Peat is harvesting is a giant, open field covered by sphagnum moss, with an occasional stunted pine tree. There is plenty of water in the bog - the moss sops it up like a sponge - but there are no nutrients, no soil, so few plants other than moss can grow. Not even blueberries, which grow on almost any other piece of open land in Maine, can survive here.Skip to next paragraph
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The benefit to Maine's economy is debatable. Gerahian says the plant will pay $500,000 a year in state and local taxes and will be one of the largest employers in the area; there will be 58 year-round jobs, half of which need skilled workers who will have to be brought in from elsewhere.
And the electricity the plant produces will go to Massachusetts. Gerahian says that when Central Maine Power said it didn't need the electricity, his company agreed to sell it to Boston Edison. CMP, however, has now turned to Canada to buy power.
Down East Peat faces a challenge in harvesting the peat, which has an average thickness of 18 feet. Despite specially designed equipment, huge pieces of machinery that operate on tanklike tracks - tracks made out of wood so they won't sink in the soft bog - there are just three or four months in which the weather permits harvesting. And the harvesting process is not simple.
First, the peat field is prepared by removing the plants until it looks like a Midwest farm just before planting, a huge, dark brown expanse. After ditches and pipes are installed to drain and channel the water, a cutter/extruder cuts off a thin layer of peat, leaving it on the ground in long, sausagelike rolls to dry. When one side is dry, a flipper turns the peat rolls over so the other side can dry.
Another machine picks up and collects the dried peat, cuts it into pellets the size of a can of vegetables, and loads it into a giant cart that can haul 200 cubic yards of peat. The dried pellets are then moved to a 20-acre storage area, where they sit in piles until they are needed.
The peat pellets are crushed to the size of peas before being injected into a fluidized bed of sandstone and limestone in one of three boilers. After the plant is fired up from a cold start with oil, it becomes self-combusting, producing 13,000 Btu per kilowatt hour for every 1.4 pounds of peat.
How long the peat supply will last is another problem facing the venture. Knuuti believes that, at 2 million cubic yards a year, the peat will be depleted in 10 years, but Gerahian estimates there is enough peat to last 14 to 20 years. Afer the first year, however, when the plant will burn all peat, Gerahian hopes the plant will also be able to burn wood chips. When the peat runs out, Down East Peat will either have to switch entirely to wood chips or find another bog.
It is the possibility of other peat plants being constructed that concerns Jerry Bley of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. ``Peat is a finite, nonrenewable energy source. We are very concerned that if this is a success we may see other [peat] plants,'' he says.
That is just what Gerahian is planning. Once his first Down East Peat plant is operating and has shown it can overcome the technical and environmental challenges, as well as turn a profit, Gerahian wants to start other peat-powered electricity-generating plants in Maine and elsewhere. He has already talked to electric companies in Florida, Michigan, and Virginia.