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'The bog is the community. This could destroy us': How Ireland's move away from peat is hitting the Midlands

As Ireland makes to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, midlands communities fear they will be left behind.

Paddy Phelan - a fitter with Bord na Móna - works on a tractor in the workshop in Ferbane, Co Offaly.
Paddy Phelan - a fitter with Bord na Móna - works on a tractor in the workshop in Ferbane, Co Offaly.
Image: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Every morning this week, TheJournal.ie will publish an article on the international climate crisis and what it means for Ireland.

Is the country doing its part in the battle against global warming? And what effects will the efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions have on Irish society?

ON AN OVERCAST afternoon Paddy Phelan sat in the office of the old Bord na Móna workshop at the edge of the Lemanaghan bog outside Ferbane in Co Offaly. 

The workshop was the place to service the tractors and other machinery used to harvest and produce peat in the surrounding bog. At one point, there were 15 or 20 people working there, Phelan said. 

Bord na Móna (BNM) – the commercial semi-state company – announced it was closing 17 active bogs last year, and since then the workshop has been mostly silent. 

Phelan is a fitter with BNM, which was first set up 1946 under the Turf Development Act with the purpose of developing Ireland’s extensive peatlands.

It has been a significant presence in the Midlands since then, providing employment to thousands of people over the years in managing the bogs and harvesting peat. The peat is then to be used to generate electricity in ESB power stations as well as for home heating.

Phelan has worked with the semi-state company for over 40 years, starting back in 1977.  

“It has been a life and a lifestyle. Everything you see around here, this was all Bord Na Móna,” he told TheJournal.ie.

IMG_4911 Tracks leading out into the bog near Ferbane, Co Offaly. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Today, he works out of nearby Shannonbridge and the Blackwater group of bogs, which supply the peat that is burnt to generate electricity at the ESB’s West Offaly Power Station.

Last month, An Bord Pleanála refused an application for the power station to continue burning peat past 2020, citing serious environmental concerns with peat-firing electricity. 

BNM announced in 2015 that it would fully stop harvesting peat by 2030, and that it was ramping up its rehabilitation and restoration of Ireland’s bogs. Last year, it brought the end of peat forward to 2028, and announced there would be up to 430 job losses as a result of its “decarbonisation plan”.

In order to transition smoothly, BMN wanted to continue to supply peat along with biomass (basically, wood or other organic material grown in Ireland or imported) to be used together to generate electricity at ESB power plants.  

But ABP refused permission for this in July, catching BNM and the ESB off guard and sparking serious concerns among 300 workers at the plant, as well as those employed to supply the station with peat.

“It was a huge blow. We all expected it. Don’t be under any illusion. We expected it and we knew it was coming but we had ourselves set for 2030,” Phelan told TheJournal.ie.

This is not like a factory in Dublin that you close the door and life goes on. This is way bigger than that. This is a community. The community is the bog and ESB.

Adding to this, further north in Lanesborough, Co Longford, the ESB’s Lough Ree power station (which also uses peat) last month stopped operating after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took action over environmental concerns with how it was running.

BORD NA MONA_90548347_90556972 File photo of machinery harvesting peat on the Bog of Allen outside Edenderry in County Offaly. Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

That decision has already led to the loss of over 70 seasonal jobs at BNM, with hundreds of full-time jobs with the company and the ESB hanging in the balance. 

The issues at Lough Ree and West Offaly have become a flashpoint in the debate around the future of Ireland’s energy production and the burning of fossil fuels.

It is government environmental policy that Ireland transitions to renewable energy, but there are concerns that it needs to be a “just transition” that doesn’t result in the destruction of midlands communities.

So, how will Ireland make the move away from fossil fuels? What will it mean for the environment? And what about the communities who fear they may be left behind? 

Making energy in Ireland 

The burning of fossil fuels like oil, peat, gas and coal to generate energy is by far the largest contributor to heat-trapping greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Ireland. 

Burning these fuels releases carbon dioxide and other chemicals into the Earth’s atmosphere. These chemicals remain in the Earth’s atmosphere and trap and prevent heat from escaping, leading over time to the planet heating up. 

The vast majority of things we do – from filling our cars with petrol to power them, to using gas to heat our homes, to plugging our phones in to charge them – require energy and traditionally this energy has come from burning fossil fuels. 

According to figures from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), a total of 60% of all Ireland’s GHG emissions came from energy use in 2017, across different sectors like transport, electricity and heat. 

When you discount transport (which we’ll talk about in a later article), energy use was 38% of Ireland’s GHG emissions. This is split between industry, residential, services and energy use in agriculture. 

90364046_90364046 (1) Electrical Power lines at a substation in Finglas, Co Dublin. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Burning fossil fuels

For centuries fuels have been burned to create electricity and heat, which are essential for modern societies to function. Over the past two decades, countries in the EU and wider world have been moving away from fossil fuels and into more renewable energy.

This is energy generated through things like wind or solar power which doesn’t contribute to worldwide GHG emissions. Ireland – along with other countries – has set targets for next year and beyond in relation to renewable energy.

It committed to sourcing 16% of its total energy (including heat and transport as well as electricity) from renewable sources by 2020, a target it is likely to miss. 

Last December, Ireland was rated the worst-performing EU country in the Climate Change Performance Index – a ranking of EU and OECD countries prepared by 3 environmental NGOs.

The country ranked very low in terms of GHG emissions and low in the Energy Use category. A lot of this has to do with the fossil fuel mix we use to produce its heat and electricity. 

While Ireland is ramping up its supply of renewable energy sources (and is even a world leader when it comes to wind-generated electricity), many environmentalists believe that this is not happening anywhere near fast enough. 

“In terms of climate and emissions we cannot afford to continue to be effectively a rogue state when it comes to emissions,” John Gibbons, spokesperson for An Táisce’s Climate Change Committee said.

Which is the status we’re at now – we’re effectively a rogue state within the EU.

An Táisce is a non-governmental environmental organisation set up to protect Ireland’s natural and built heritage. It is currently at the forefront of the battle to stop the harvesting and burning of peat from the country’s bogs.

Gibbons said it was “fantastically inefficient to burn peat to generate electricity”.

According to the SEAI, in 2016 the GHG emissions intensity - meaning how much GHG emissions were released with our energy supply – was over 30% higher than the European average, as a result of our fuel mix.

90403002_90403002 File photo showing the River Shannon at Shannonbridge. Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Bord na Móna 

Paddy Phelan’s father worked with Bord na Móna before him, starting in 1957 at the opening of one of the many bogs used for peat production. 

The semi-state has been a huge employer in the area over the decades, with harvesting the bogs a labour-heavy job that requires manpower as well as technical expertise.

“You’d meet a huge amount of people in the towns and villages all around who have worked in Bord Na Móna and who would be getting pensions out of Bord na Móna,” said Phelan, speaking at the workshop in Ferbane. 

Even for the shops in Ballycumber and Ferbane and things like that – the spin offs of different industries around would be huge.

Before BNM, people in Ireland had been harvesting peat for centuries to use as domestic fuel, with the first large scale harvesting taking place in the 19th century.

IMG_4887 Paddy Phelan fears for the future of midlands towns and villages as Bord na Móna moves away from peat production. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Peat is formed from decomposing plants that accumulate in a water logged area in the absence of oxygen (meaning a bog). Boglands make up about 5% of surface of Ireland, and so we have an abundance of peat – making it an ideal fuel for electricity during the 20th century.

By the 1970s, just under half of Ireland’s electricity came from a mixture of peat and hydroelectricity, with the balance being made up of imported oil. In 1980, BNM employed 7,100 workers with the sizeable majority working in production. 

As well as electricity, it was also used extensively (and still is, to a smaller degree) as a form of fuel for domestic heating. Peat briquettes are still a common sight in many households, and 5.3% of Irish homes used peat for central heating last year.  

Today, BNM employs 1,980 workers and just three peat-fired power stations remain operational in Ireland: Lough Ree, West Offaly and Edenderry (which has a licence to burn peat along with biomass).

Environmentally destructive 

In their natural state, bogs are what are known as “carbon sinks” – basically sites in which carbon is sequestered (or stored) from the atmosphere. They are also sites of great biodiversity – home to a variety of plant and animal wildlife. 

shutterstock_1469348240 Source: Shutterstock/Colm Tierney

When bogs are drained and the peat harvested, they lost this quality as effective carbon sinks. As well as this, peat emits high levels of CO2 per unit of energy used, worse even than coal, making it one of the least efficient fossil fuels.   

The state is still subsidising the burning of peat. Last year, Lough Ree and West Offaly power stations received €87.75 million from the taxpayer to operate under the Public Service Obligation (PSO) scheme.

This scheme will run out for peat at the end of this year. Already, West Offaly Power station has failed to secure planning permission to continue burning peat after this, with the decision still pending for Lough Ree power station.

“The cost per employee down in the Midlands is about €100,000 per employee to fund BNM to destroy our richest carbon sink. This makes no sense on any level,” said John Gibbons. 

Coal – another fossil fuel – is soon to face a similar fate. The ESB announced that it would be moving away from coal burning over the next decade at the Moneypoint power plant in west Clare.

Moneypoint is the largest power station in Ireland and the only coal-fired plant. It is also the second largest employer in west Clare, after Trump International Doonbeg.

shutterstock_1471488158 Moneypoint power station in Clare, which burns coal to generate electricity. Source: Shutterstock/TheCourtyard

The electricity provider announced last month that it would be cutting 100 jobs from the plant, citing market pressures, carbon prices and increases in renewable energy as reasons. 

Natural gas and renewables

In 2017, coal and peat together made up about half of Ireland’s GHG emissions from electricity generation, despite only generating about a fifth of our final electricity. 

Emissions from these fuels have fallen since 2005, while emissions from natural gas have risen significantly. 

The majority (just over half) of our electricity now comes from natural gas, which is significantly more carbon efficient than coal or peat (and therefore has a reputation as being “cleaner”). 

In 2015 Ireland imported 95% of its gas from Europe, but this has since dropped to 34%, largely because of the addition of the Corrib gas field in late 2015 to the State’s supply.

The government has insisted that as we move towards more renewable forms of energy, gas as well as oil will still be needed to meet our energy demands.

It was on this rationale that it blocked People Before Profit’s Climate Emergency Measures Bill from progressing through the Dáil, despite the fact that it had support from the majority of the parliament. 

0248 People before profit_90573022 Bríd Smith of PBP (centre) and Catherine Martin of the Green Party (centre right) with John Gibbons (far left) discussing the Climate Emergency Bill in June. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

If it was passed into law, it would have put a stop to new licences being granted for the purpose of oil or gas exploration in Ireland, which the government said would have threatened Ireland’s energy security going forward.

The blocking of the bill sparked protests outside the Dáil, with PBP TD calling it “utter hypocrisy” and saying it showed that the government wasn’t serious on fulfilling its climate action commitments.  

Naturally, the government disagreed.

“When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine we need a back-up,” Climate Action and Energy Minister Richard Bruton said earlier this year, adding that the “back -up remains oil and gas”.

About 30% of Ireland’s electricity came from renewables in 2017 (while renewable sources make up about 11% of the country’s total energy needs). 

“That’s up towards world leading standards in terms of the level of wind energy deployed on our system,” said Jim Scheer, head of the Policy Insights and Design at the SEAI. 

As peat and coal power plants shut down over the next decade, the government’s Climate Action Plan has set the target of increasing this to 70% by 2030.

Scheer sees great opportunity in wind energy as the country moves towards this goal (especially in developing our offshore wind capabilities).

Gibbons believes that the country is not moving towards renewables fast enough to play its part in averting climate catastrophe. He also sees environmental danger ahead if the country relies too much on gas to replace peat and coal. 

“What the gas industry have spotted is a panic about climate change and they’ve decided to position themselves as a ‘transition technology’,” he said. 

“But what they mean by that is that they want to embed that technology – to hardwire it into our energy system for the next 40 years.

We don’t have 40 more years of burning any form of fossil fuels if we want to have an environmental system capable of supporting complex  life. 

“Nothing left”

But as of yet, renewabled energy hasn’t provided to kind of employment peat harvesting and burning has for the towns and villages of the Midlands.

In Lanesborough, Co Longford, the ESB’s Lough Ree power station towers over the town, an imposing sight as you drive through.

The station has been shut down since early July, when it was confirmed that the EPA was taking legal action against the ESB over how it was running.

The issue had to do with the temperature of wastewater being emitted into Lough Ree and the River Shannon, which the EPA said was detrimental for the plant and marine life there. 

IMG_4966 Lough Ree power station in Lanesborough. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

BNM – which supplies peat from nearby Mountdillon for the station – immediately announced it was laying off 78 seasonal workers and 72 permanent workers temporarily. 

This sparked widespread condemnation from local politicians, workers and the community. Hundreds of people marched through the town in protest following the announcement.

The outcry led to BNM reversing its decision to lay off full time employees, but workers still fear for their jobs in the medium-term.

BNM has moved and is progressing into and exploring other areas as it begins to close bogs and make the move “from brown to green”. These include renewable energy, horticulture, tourism, recycling and fish farms, among other areas. 

The semi-state has even been in talks to grow Ireland’s medicinal cannabis supply into the future. But there are fears that none of these will be enough to replace the labour-intensive work of peat extraction. 

(Bord na Móna declined to offer any comment when contacted for this story by TheJournal.ie)

These were the fears felt in and around Lanesborough, when we visited this month. The Mountdillon workshop just outside the town was mostly empty except for a few workers. 

“The casuals are all gone – every one of them,” said Tommy Murray, a fixer at Mountdillon and union shop steward who has worked with BNM for over 40 years. 

If they can’t burn peat, they can’t burn peat… that’s it.

Murray’s fears echo those of Paddy Phelan and the future of employment in Shannonbridge if West Offaly is not allowed to burn peat after 2020. 

IMG_4951 Tommy Murray works on a tractor at Mountdillon. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

As recently as last week, An Táisce and other international environmental groups objected to the EPA issuing a new licence for Lough Ree, citing environmental concerns and using the recent Shannonbridge decision as an example. 

Bord na Móna Group of Unions spokesperson Willie Noone said the move was “opportunism” from an Táisce and that the groups was putting livelihoods at risk.

In the town and among the community there are real fears that the station won’t reopen. 

Local shopkeeper Joe O’Brien told TheJournal.ie that Lanesborough and the surrounding towns could be destroyed if Lough Ree stays closed.

“We’ve been the main town hit by this… and it came out of the blue,” he said about the closure. 

It will destroy the town.

IMG_4977 Joe O'Brien fears for the future of the community in Lanesborough. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Future jobs

As Bord na Móna began to offer voluntary redundancies and close its bogs, meetings were held with workers represented by the Bord na Móna Group of Unions.  

The key term heard at these meetings, and mentioned by all interested parties when discussing Ireland’s energy future, is the need for a “just transition”: The need to protect jobs and livelihoods while also ensuring Ireland meets its energy and emissions targets over the next 10 years and beyond that.

The world is in the midst of climate crisis as a result of global warming causes by GHG emissions, Ireland has said it wants to be leader in climate and that means moving away from fossil fuels. 

But the recent decision by ABP with regards to Shannonbridge, and the ongoing issues at Lough Ree, seem to have caught BNM and the government by surprise. 

When questioned on future jobs in the midlands in a decarbonised economy, Minister Bruton said there were job opportunities in the midlands, but was vague on the specifics:

“We want to flesh out how that can be realised. Challenges need to be planned for and I’m determined to bring back to Government a coherent development of a pathway for the midlands,” he told RTÉ News

When contacted by TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment said work was continuing on “developing a just transition plan for affected areas”.

The spokesperson said Ireland had been admitted to the European Commission’s Platform for Coal Regions in Transition, which will allow the area to avail he “support of a dedicated Country Team of experts to assist with the development of strategies and projects for the region”.

They said work was ongoing with all stakeholders to “bring about a just transition away from peat production for the workers and communities affected” and that this was being stepped up.  

BRUTON ON BROADBAND  758A3957_90570776 Minister Bruton and the government have been vague on the future on Bord na Móna. Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

But environmentalists say that the government and Bord na Móna have known for years that peat extraction would have to stop, and both should have been more prepared.

“Of course we need a transition but we can’t just use the phrase ‘just transition’ to simply delay what has to be done and this is another attempt to kick this down the road for another 10 years,” said John Gibbons. 

In terms of what industry or jobs could replace peat or coal or other fossil fuel industries, Gibbons points to a large-scale retrofitting programme. 

“[An Táisce] did quite a bit of work on this over the last couple of years and what we found was the obvious, unavoidable replacement for this is a retrofitting programme,” said Gibbons. 

“The point about retrofitting is it requires skilled workers and it can only be delivered on a local basis – town by town, parish by parish, county by county.

We have enough poor quality housing stock in Ireland to employ tens of thousands of people from now until 2050 retrofitting

Heating

As well as electricity and transport, heating is the other big energy emitter of greenhouse gases in Ireland, responsible for about 31% of GHG emissions in 2017 (more than electricity). 

Over 80% of these emissions come from imported oil and gas, commonly used in home heating. At least a million Irish homes have a low energy rating, and lose heat easily.

Retrofitting these homes is seen as a key challenge by government towards helping the country meet its climate goals (and is one of the key actions of its climate plan). 

But the recent controversy over the SEAI’s deep retrofitting grant pilot scheme shows once again the difficulty the government will have funding implementing the large-scale programmes that are needed. 

It was announced without warning that a pilot funding scheme for people looking to perform a “deep retrofit” on their homes had ran out of money, leaving hundreds of homeowner who had already began work on their homes with a shortfall (the government later announced that people who applied would have their applications processed under the scheme).

For Jim Scheer of the SEAI, there are many other opportunities that need to be explored in the midlands.

“Turning [the peatlands] from what they are now are rehabilitating them into a big garden in the heartland of Ireland that’s sequestering carbon and maybe is a tourist attraction… and a source of renewable energy with turbines and a source of biodiversity.

From where it is now to a picture like that needs work and probably needs the kind of skills that BNM workers have at the moment.

But the call from environmentalists, the UN and climate scientists is that the time to act on seriously cutting emissions, in order to ensure the future of the country and world, is now.

An Táisce and many others state that the time for slow transitions is already long passed, as is the need to continue burning environmentally damaging fossil fuels. 

A just transition?

For Paddy Phelan, sitting in the old Bord na Móna workshop in Ferbane, however, issues around climate change and emissions seem far away when compared to job losses and the destruction in his community if nothing replaces Bord na Móna.

“Look, I mean I don’t mind I’m 59 years of age. My girls have gone through college and I have the mortgage paid. I’m okay… but there are others that are in dire straits,” he said.

“There’s no point saying otherwise. They’re in dire straits. There’s one chap he’s finished last Friday and he’s heading for Australia and I firmly believe there will be a few more of the other lads heading that way.

“There isn’t anything to replace brown fuel. You can drive out and see… There’s only small industries.

You want something to come into the midlands and these areas that will employ 500 or 600 people at a time. Now what it is I don’t know.

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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