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.

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.

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.

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.

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