Peat has been used as a source of energy in Ireland for at least 1,000 years. But it may be on its way out, as the Emerald Isle turns to another energy source of which it has unlimited quantities: Wind. (The Economist)
- The short Economist article details how Ireland is reducing its use of peat and investing in wind energy. What is peat? Read our short study guide for some help.
- Peat describes layers of partially decayed organic material found in some wetlands. Peat is thick, muddy, and, when harvested, looks like dark, earthen bricks.
- Peat forms in bogs. Bogs are a type of wetland with a high acid content. Like all wetlands, bogs are inhabited by marshy plants, including trees, grasses, and moss. The bog’s acidity prevents this vegetation from fully decaying. This partly decayed organic material builds up, and, over millions of years, becomes peat.
- In certain circumstances, peat can be an early stage in coal formation. Most of the time, however, peat is a unique material.
- Despite the title of our study guide, peat is not classified as a fossil fuel by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as the organic material in peat has not actually fossilized. Many supporters of the peat industry classify peat as “biomass fuel,” distinct from both biomass, such as wood, and fossil fuels, such as coal.
- The high acid content of peat can make it an excellent time-capsule material. “Bog bodies” are preserved in peatlands around the world.
- Why does the Economist call peat “one of the dirtiest fuels available”?
- Although not classified as a fossil fuel, peat emits 23% more carbon dioxide than coal.
- Why is it such big news that Ireland is investing less in peat energy?
- The Republic of Ireland (the big country that shares the island with Northern Ireland) is the second-largest consumer of peat in the world, burning through more than four million tons in 2013. (Finland is the world’s top peat consumer.)
- Peat is a part of Irish identity. No less an authority than Seamus Heaney wrote extensively about peat bogs (and bog bodies), noting Irish patrimony “kinned by hieroglyphic peat on a spreadfield.” Peat bricks are a popular gift and souvenir item among the Irish diaspora.
- Why do you think the Republic of Ireland is a much better candidate to develop a strong wind energy sector than Northern Ireland? Take a look at a map of the island of Ireland, and the “wind zones” section in our encyclopedic entry for some help.
- The Republic of Ireland is much larger than Northern Ireland, with miles and miles more coastline on which offshore wind farms could be built.
- Perhaps more importantly, western Ireland, especially the province of Connaught, is subject to powerful westerlies blowing eastward across the Atlantic. (These cool, wet winds carry enough moisture to bring rain up to 225 days a year in western Ireland.) Northern Ireland sits on the northeast part of the island, facing the larger island of Great Britain, and is not slammed by as many winds as its southern neighbor. Take a look at this simple MapMaker Interactive map with ocean currents (which mimic wind currents) for an illustration.
- Why is wind power more unpredictable than peat and other fossil fuels? Take a look at the “Challenges” section in our encyclopedic entry for some help.
- Even though wind energy is cheap, the initial cost to build the wind farm or install a turbine still costs more than fossil-fuel generators. It may take years to offset the start-up cost.
- Wind itself is incredibly unpredictable. Sometimes it isn’t windy enough to generate the power to supply the electrical grid. Other times, strong winds result in “excess power that takes the grid beyond the point of stability.”
- Ireland’s solution to this unpredictability is to export its excess energy to its big brother of the British Isles, Great Britain. Two connections currently link the two islands, and Ireland’s grid company is planning another cable connecting it to continental Europe.
The Economist: Ireland is ditching peat for energy from wind
Nat Geo: What is wind energy?