Finland finds an energy answer at its feet -- peat

Peat sods cut and drying in the sun -- too bulky to cart very far economically -- may never send tremors through international currency markets the way changing oil prices do.

But the United States, as a Finnish scientist-cum-businessman here points out , has more energy reserves in its peat bogs than in any other form except coal.

Making peat a practical fuel is a puzzle.

From his pocket, Bertel Myreen pulls a coal-colored pellet like a half-inch-thick piece of chalk. It packs about the same energy as a chunk of low-sulfur coal of the same size and weight.

But it burns cleaner than coal, with a much lower sulfur and ash content.

This coal-like pellet of peat has been refined by a process Myreen patented for the Finnish firm JP-Energy Oy, a subsidiary to the Jaakko Poyry Group of consulting engineers.

The Finns developed it first partly because they need it most.

With long, dark winters and high-calorie industries, Finland is fuel-hungry. Yet it has vast tracts of peat bogs sitting idly.

Peat pellets may first heat homes, however, in Maine. JP-Energy's North American licensee, Wheelabrator-Frye, is planning a plant which could supply 20 percent of Maine's residential useage per year.

A consortium of Finnish companies including Neste, the state-owned oil company, is also planning a "peat-derived fuel" (PDF) plant, according to Myreen.

A Finnish energy official calls the process "promising" but unproven. The Wheelabrator-Frye project was awarded a $3.5 million low-interest loan by the US Department of Energy (DOE) for developing Myreens's process.

These essential funds, however, hang in the balance as Congress reviews the White House proposal that all such awards be rescinded.

It was during the energy crisis of 1973-74 that Myreen began working on an efficient way to dehydrate peat. The problem is that peat in its natural state is 90 percent moisture. And it can't simply be squeezed out; the moisture is chemically bound.

Peat had no large-scale energy future, least of all in Finland's climate, if it had to be cut into sod to dry in the sun. So using a concept dating back to the turn of the century, Myreen developed the wet-carbonizing process. This process uses compression and heat treatment to turn the spongy earth of a peat bog into efficient black slugs of energy.

The process is about 78 percent energy-efficient. In other words, it takes the burning power of 22 pellets to produce 100 more.

Finland ranks third among nations in peat reserves behind the Soviet Union and the US. Myreen calculates that if 40 percent of Finland's peat is considered useable, then peat could supply the country's present imported energy needs for 100 years.

Considering that Finland imports 70 percent of its fuel, a large-scale use of peat bogs is appealing. Energy accounts for nearly a third of all Finnish imports.

And, Myreen points out, "There's no competing use of peat. It's just lying there."

US peat is chiefly in Alaska, Minnesota, and Michigan. Maine ranks eighth, according to the DOE. Yet, by a Wheelabrator-Frye study, the proposed Maine plant would produce 330,000 short tons of peat pellets a year for 20 or 30 years and consume less than 1 percent of Maine's peat supply.

Meanwhile, the power produced would be enough for about 20 percent of the state's residential usage.

The drawbacks, Myreen admits, begin with the cost of the wet-carbonizing equipment. The projects need to be on a large-scale for prices to be competitive.

So far no competitors have appeared on the peat-derived fuel horizon. The process has yet to prove itself commercially.

But the Institute of Gas Technology in Minnesota is working on a plan for making pipeline-quality natural gas out of peat. The two schemes dovetail, in Myreen's opinion, since the peat-derived pellets make a good fuel for the gasifying operation.

But the equipment for this kind of alchemy is extremely expensive. So production needs to be on a huge scale. The annual output of the Maine plant would be consumed in 10 days by the proposed Minnesota plant.

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