Peat bogs: soggy source of energy down in Maine

Wanted: an American energy source that is cheaper than coal, low in sulfur and ash, prevalent in Northern states, and capable of supplying the nation's entire energy needs for nearly 20 years.

Found: 52.6 million acres of damp, squashy land in Maine and several other states, including Alaska, Minnesota, and North Carolina.

That doesn't sound like an answer. But that's how many acres (says the US Department of Energy) are covered with one of the nation's least-noticed nonrenewable energy resources: peat.

A gift of the second ice age some 12,000 years ago, peat is a spongy mass of decaying vegetable matter (10 percent) and water (90 percent) lying in carpets several yards deep in depressions left by the glaciers.

Once air-dried, it can be cut into lumps and burned in the smoldering fires characteristic of Irish countryside hearths. Or it can be vacuumed up, bagged, and sold to gardeners -- as it is at the Downeast Peat Corporation near here in tiny Deblois (population 45).

Or, says John W. Rohrer of the New Hampshire-based Wheelabrator-Frye Inc., it can be processed into easily stored pellets the size of broken crayons and sold by the ton.

Last December the Department of Energy awarded Wheelabrator-Frye $3.5 million toward America's first large-scale peat processing plant. The was later grant rescinded, however, under the Reagan administration's belt-tightening policies.

But so promising is the future for these pellets, Mr. Rohrer says, that his firm is hoping to set up a small (330,000 ton-per-year) plant somewhere in Maine -- even without government funding.

Why Maine?

One reason is the presence of bogs. Maine's 700,000 acres of peat -- the only substantial reserves in New England -- could meet as much as 60 times the state's total annual energy consumption.

More important, however, is the economic factor. Maine usually is considered a state with no indigenous energy resources except wood. Nearly 70 percent of its energy comes from oil -- at a cost of $1.6 billion each year. Nor is coal a bargain. Because Maine is at the end of the nation's freight lines, it has the highest delivered price for coal of any of the other states (like Alaska, Minnesota, or North Carolina) rich in peat.

Enter "PDF" -- peat-derived fuel -- suitable for residential or industrial unses. If Mr. Rohrer's expensive plant ($40 million to $60 million) gets going, it should produce fuel that will sell locally for $2.25 per million British thermal units (Btus) of heat. That's about the price of wood -- and somewhat below the cost of coal.

And his single plant (which in its 20-to-30 year lifespan would use less than 1 percent of Maine's peat) would produce enough fuel to heat more than 20 percent of the state's houses each year.

Within two months, says Rohrer, Wheelabrator-Frye will be in a position to decide on the feasibility of a Maine plant. Extraction costs -- largely involving earth-moving operations -- are only a fraction of those for coal. The expense comes in processing the peat.

"We heat it, and then we squeeze it," Rohrer says, summarizing the 400 degree F., pressure-cooking process under license from a Finnish firm, JP-Energy Oy of Helsinki.

If the current feasibility study produces positive results, the next phase will involve permitting -- a procedure that could raise some hackles in this environment-conscious state. Canada has been harvesting horticultural peat for years from bogs like the 3,000-acre one in Shippegan, New Brunswick. But America's wilderness-lovers may see the latest battle of the bog as a typical energy-vs.-ecosystem standoff. They are concerned about disturbing fragile flora and fauna and raise doubts about reclaiming the land.

"Peat bogs are unique areas," says Mark Ishkanian of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "we want to make sure that there is a proper inventory done so that the more unique of the bogs are preserved."

Rohrer notes that his process, because it does not depend on air drying, avoids the long-term, unsightliness of acres of slowly drying sphagnum. The land, which he admits may be lowered 10 feet by the stripping, may be either forested or flooded

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