Energy Institute

The story of peat in Ireland

Peat harvested from local bogs has been used for centuries for cooking and heating in Ireland. With the depletion of this country’s natural woodland in the 1600s, peat became an important source of indigenous fuel for households. Throughout the 20th century, peat was prized as a source of rural employment and an alternative fuel for heating and electricity generation during disruptions to coal supply in World War I and II. Peat is still used to generate electricity and as a fuel for home fires to this day, however, sustainable energy policy and bogland conservation programmes indicate phasing out harvesting peat as a primary source of energy post 2030.

Peat harvested from local bogs has been used for centuries for cooking and heating in Ireland. With the depletion of this country’s natural woodland in the 1600s, peat became an important source of indigenous fuel for households.

The first industrial-scale harvesting of hand-won peat or turf took place in 1825 at Mona Bog beside the Shannon, where it continued until the end of the 19th century. In 1850, Colonel Kitchener in County Kerry discovered how to produce peat briquettes, which had a higher calorific value than traditional sods, while experimenting with peat charcoal in an attempt to manufacture gunpowder.

The modern Irish peat industry was established in the 1930s when the Turf Development Board was set up to manage peat development, encourage self-sufficiency and generate rural employment. With the onset of the Second World War in 1939, there was widespread rationing and shortages of imported fuel.  By early 1942, government policy aimed to replace the shortages of coal in Dublin with turf.

Bord na Mona took over from the Turf Development Board at the end of the war and provided the fuel for the first sod peat fired power station in Portalington in 1950. Between 1950 and 1967, sod peat electricity generating stations totalling 117 MW and milled peat stations with a combined generation capacity of 290 MW were built by the ESB. Bord na Mona’s investment in peat briquette production and peat harvesting for electricity generation had a large impact on rural development at that time, particularly in the West and the Midlands. The oil crises of 1956 (Suez) and of 1973 were to cement the rationale for the development of peat-powered plants to diversify the Irish electricity system and avoid the risk of blackouts and rationing.

Of the ten peat-burning power plants built, six have closed – Bellacorick, Lanesborough, Portarlington, Shannonbridge, Ferbane, Rhode and Portarlington – and three remain: Edenderry, Lough Ree and West Offaly.

Today, most extracted peat is used in electricity generation but many households continue to burn peat, either as peat briquettes or privately harvested turf. There are indications of a continuing decline in the use of peat in electricity generation as the EU emissions trading scheme and sustainable energy policy incentivise co-firing of peat with solid biomass.

Conservation programmes have restricted further exploitation of boglands for peat harvesting. In 2015, Bord na Mona announced its intention to phase out the harvesting of peat for energy by 2030 in favour of biomass, wind power and solar generation.

Historical peat cutting

19th Century

Peat has been used as a fuel in Ireland for many centuries. Evidence suggests it was used as early as the seventh century. By the 19th century, turf had become one of the main sources of fuel in Ireland, alongside coal. Due to its variable quality and supply, its main use was in areas close to peat lands and in those inland settlements and cities where people had limited access to affordable alternatives.

The first industrial-scale harvesting of hand-won turf took place at Mona Bog along the Shannon in 1825 and in 1838, commercial manufacture of peat charcoal commenced under the direction of Charles Wye Williams. While this proved to be unprofitable, similar methods were used in projects to tackle famine-era poverty a decade later. The peat charcoal produced by the Irish Amelioration Society in 1850 in County Kildare is one such example. Around this time, Colonel Kitchener discovered how to produce peat briquettes while experimenting with peat charcoal for use in the manufacture of gunpowder.


20th Century

At the start of the twentieth century, most of the peat harvested in Ireland was for home heating and cooking, principally by the least well off families in Irish cities and towns in place of more expensive coal. In 1921, a Commission of Enquiry into the Resources and Industries of Ireland reported that an estimated 4.7 million tonnes of coal and six million tonnes of peat were consumed in Ireland each year.

As a consequence of the growing interest in electricity, a 1901 Act of Parliament authorised that the peatlands of Leinster be developed for power production. Mechanical harvesting of peat had already started in Europe and was introduced to this country in 1903. By 1911, a number of industries were powered by turf. The Hamilton Robbs linen factory at Portadown generated its electricity from peat gas and the Marconi wireless station near Clifden in County Galway was powered by steam generated from turf until 1925.

In the 1930s, the Irish government promoted a policy of economic self-sufficiency. A state company, the Turf Development Board (TDB), was set up in 1934 to organise the production and sale of hand-won turf. The Board’s early strategy proved to be unsuccessful, however. Turf could not displace higher quality, imported coal in the market and the increase in industrial employment in the economy caused a shortage of labour to harvest the peat. In 1939, the TDB closed its newly acquired peat works because of labour disputes and the absence of a market. This closure was quickly reversed following the outbreak of the Second World War.

Bord na Mona, 1934

1940s, the Second World War and the establishment of Bord naMona

With the onset of the Second World War in 1939, coal imports declined drastically. By early 1942, the government sought to respond to shortages of coal in Dublin by transporting large shipments of turf to the city from around the country. The Lullymore peat briquette factory opened its doors in 1941. Due to the briquettes’ higher calorific value, energy-intensive industries such as bakeries, whiskey distilleries and the railway system were given priority access to the available supply. Large stockpiles of peat were laid down in the cities and rationed with controlled prices. Between 1939 and 1945, the average annual expenditure on peat production under the minor employment scheme budget rose to €2.4 million. About 10,000 hectares of bog were acquired and drained, and a road network of over 650km was constructed in bog lands under the Kildare Scheme. Some 760km of drains were cut by hand with assistance from German internees from Curragh Camp.

Bord na Mona was established in 1946 to take over from the Turf Development Board as the peat development and supply utility. Post-war development began on several large bogs. Fuel controls were lifted and plans were made to develop 24 more bogs and produce over a million tons of machine turf a year. As Bord na Mona expanded the production of peat around the country, the ESB began construction of its first peat-fired power station in Portalington, which opened in 1950.

In the early 1950s, heavy rainfall impeded the production and harvesting of peat and reduced its quality. Almost all the output of machine turf was used by the ESB, local authorities and industry. By 1955, a two-year economic recession forced ESB to curb its ambitions for peat-fired electricity. However, the value of peat-fired electricity became apparent during the Suez crisis in 1956 when electricity rationing was avoided in part due to peat-fired power stations.

Between 1950 and 1967, sod peat stations with a total capacity of 117 MW and milled peat stations with a generation capacity of 290 MW were built as part of a fuel diversification strategy. At one time, peat generation made up approximately one-third of the ESB’s total capacity. Peat development had a large impact on rural development at the time, particularly in the Midlands and West, where a number of small stations were built.

1960s & 70s

The impact of weather conditions on peat production became particularly apparent in the 1960s, which saw seven years of exceptionally reduced yields. At the same time, oil and gas were becoming cheaper as a result of exploration finds so that, by 1966, machine turf was being sold at a loss.

The 1970s brought further turbulence in the form of high interest rates, inflation, oil price increases, the stock market crash and the oil embargo. By this time, both the private sector and Bord na Mona were each producing a million tonnes of turf per year, but it was becoming apparent that this level of production could not be sustained. Bogs were becoming exhausted and peat reserves were depleting.

Bellacorrick milled peat plant

Active from 1962 to 2003

1980s & 90s

The 1980s saw more challenges including a financial crisis, temporary high oil prices creating an artificial market, the ageing of ESB’s peat-fired power stations and the introduction of the private bog scheme. The ESB’s reluctance to use peat was attributed to its low efficiency, high capital costs, uncertainty of peat harvests and falling oil prices. However, the ESB’s concerns were outweighed by government policy that peat had contributed to the security of supply, avoided overdependence on a single fuel type and contributed to the development of the Midlands and the West. With the re-enactment of the Turf Development Act of 1981, Bord na Mona became responsible for a private turf development scheme, which provided grants to private bog developers. Over the course of the scheme, private production rose from 350,000 tonnes in 1981 to 1.4 million tonnes in 1990, while at the same time Bord na Mona began to phase out its own sod production. At this time, environmental awareness was becoming more widespread and Bord na Mona began to pay more attention to peat land conservation measures.

There was a decline in the market for solid fuels in the early 1990s as a result of competition from natural gas and the introduction of smoke emission controls in Dublin. As environmental concerns became increasingly important, the European Commission introduced a proposal for a directive on the taxation of energy products; the need for national greenhouse gas emission reduction targets was recognised by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol; and in 2002 the Sustainable Energy Act was introduced. Three new-generation power stations - Edenderry, West Offaly and Lough Ree - were equipped with intermediate fuel stores with a partial blending capacity and were subject to the European carbon emissions trading regulations, which came into effect in 2005.

21st Century

Today, most extracted turf is used in electricity generation plants, but a significant amount is still used in domestic households. However, the use of turf and solid fuels in general lags behind gas and oil, which are the most common modes of home heating. Briquette production for fireplaces and solid fuel boilers or stoves has fallen from a peak of 500,000 tonnes in 1987 to around 200,000 tonnes in recent years. Private peat producers and those with bog rights continue to extract peat for local markets in the Midlands.

Bord na Mona is the only producer of milled peat for electricity production in Ireland. Peat usage for electricity generation has declined since 1990 as the number of power stations burning peat has fallen from eight to three. The average annual output of milled peat has declined from around four million tonnes in the early 1990s to around 3.4 million tonnes in 2008. The use of peat is likely to continue to decline as the emissions trading scheme and sustainable energy policy encourage the co-firing of peat with solid biomass. In addition, conservation programmes have restricted further development of bog-lands, although existing resources are expected to be able to supply peat plants up to 2030.