Bord na Móna has said the industrial scale exploitation of Ireland's bogs will have ended in 15 years, with the peat briquette, that much-loved favourite of Irish households, biting the dust.
The company plans to transform itself into an alternative energy company, centred on biomass, wind and solar power. Peat briquettes, a popular winter fuel in many homes, will be replaced by biomass briquettes.
Describing its plans as "the biggest change of use involving Irish land in modern history", the 83-year-old semi-State company will open a new wind farm every year for the next seven years, according to its new chief executive Mike Quinn. Co-located with many such farms will be solar energy farms.
Much of the vast tracts of land owned by Bord na Móna across Kildare, Offaly, Westmeath, Longford and Roscommon – 80,000 hectares in all – will be taken over by willow plantations, feeding biomass fuel to
power stations currently burning peat.
Peat harvesting on a mass scale, carried out mainly on large blanket bogs in Kildare and Offaly, will have ceased by 2030, with the result that a further 125,000 acres will be available for other uses.
The company says biomass – energy derived from plants – is central to its plans and it has created a division within Bord na Móna to lead in this area. The biomass briquettes are expected to be produced in the existing peat briquette factories at Littleton, near Thurles, and Derrinlough, near Birr.
By 2030, biomass fuel will have completely replaced peat supplied to Bord na Móna's power plant at Edenderry, and also the two ESB peat-using plants, at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. "Peat is not going to last forever," said Mr Quinn. "In the longer run, willow could replace peat."
The intention is that the 2,500 jobs created by Bord na Móna across the Midlands during peak season will be retained and added to as the company changes focus. The company’s existing tractor fleet and rail network will be key to the changes.
Outlining the company’s Sustainability 2030 Report, Mr Quinn said Bord na Móna has the opportunity to become the largest supplier of biomass and solar energy in Ireland.
Biomass was a “huge opportunity” he said, noting that the company already used 320,000 tonnes a year in Edenderry and was in negotiations with the ESB to have its two peat-burning plants turned into dual peat-and-biomass plants, raising demand to some five million tonnes within 10 years.
Former peat-farmed land not used for alternative energy production will be restored by the company’s team of ecologists, who will recreate biodiversity by reintroducing water to the denuded bogs and by replanting native plants.
“We see potential for significant eco-tourism developments, as we have in Lough Boora Discovery Park,” said Mr Quinn. Bord na Mona’s past was rooted in Ireland’s boglands and its future would remain there, he said.
“We will use the land to continue to underpin Ireland’s energy independence, only now we will be using green, sustainable energy sources such as wind, biomass and solar power,” he said.
The topography of the land currently farmed for peat made it ideal for alternative, sustainable energy use, said Mr Quinn. “We have a land bank that is flat and devoid of any vegetation, with a strong wind profile. It is ideal for wind farm development,” he said. “With solar, we are not interested in small scale.”
The company’s plans drew a mixed reaction. Its group of unions said they were “disappointed to only learn of this move through the media” and were seeking clarification.
Wind Aware Ireland, which opposes wind farms, welcomed an end to peat harvesting and reinstatement of bogs, and new emphasis on biomass. “However, the continued development of wind energy cannot be considered sustainable, economically, environmentally or socially,” it said in a statement.
Friends of the Earth said continuing to burn peat for power until 2030 was a “decade too late”, adding that “public money would be much better invested in kick-starting a rooftop solar revolution”.
On likely opposition to more wind farms, sources within Bord na Mona said the company had lived and worked alongside bogland residents for many decades and would "look to build on that".