Power from peat in Rwanda

Last week, an article that I showcased on my blog a few months ago was published (re-vamped) in The Conversation.  Since it went live, I’ve had some very interesting comments and conversations about where and how we get our electricity.  What is the best source of power for a country?  What factors are considered in making that choice?  Which takes precedence over energy-efficiency, cost-effectiveness and environmental impact?  Is the latter even considered?  I am beginning to understand the complexity of issues involved in making choices between fossil fuels, renewables, national and international energy supplies, access and development.  But I have much still to learn.  It’s perhaps the biggest challenge of our time.  Whatever the answer though, power from peat is surely not a solution.

Rwanda adds to energy mix with first peat-fired power plant in Africa

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Rwanda’s first peat-fired power plant at Gishoma is currently running at 10.85MW.
Rwanda Energy Group/Twitter

Lydia Cole, University of Oxford

Rwanda recently celebrated the opening of its first peat-fired power plant at Gishoma in the far west of the country, a $39.2M project. It is the first of its kind in Africa. The Conversation

Another larger peat plant, costing $350M is under development in Gisagara to the east. The plan is for Gishoma to start feeding 15MW of electricity into the national grid imminently, and Gisagara 80MW by 2019.

The Rwandan government is hoping to achieve its goal of connecting 70% of the country’s 11.7 million people to the national grid by 2018. This is a near three-fold increase on the number connected at present. The peat-to-power plant at Gishoma will contribute to this goal, and further increase the installed capacity of the nation. This will reduce Rwanda’s reliance on expensive imports of diesel oil for power generation.

At the moment, only 25% of households have access to the 190MW of power generated in country. But over the next two years the capacity is projected to reach 563MW in line with national development goals. This increase will be made possible in part through the harnessing of power from peat.

Peat power

Peat provides an effective energy source when dried, comprising a minimum of 30% organic matter. It develops under anaerobic conditions, where waterlogging significantly slows or prevents the decomposition of dead vegetation. As the vegetation grows in the surface layers, it absorbs atmospheric carbon through the process of photosynthesis. When it dies, this carbon is stored in the accumulating substrate which is peat.

Peatlands are found across the world. But they are concentrated within certain regions where high humidity or low temperatures reduce the rate of decomposition. These include the coastal lowlands of southeast Asia or northern Russia’s permafrost zones. Despite covering just 3% of the world’s ice-free land surface, peatlands store up to 30% of its total soil carbon stock. This makes them the most efficient carbon storage facility we have.

But arguably, not a renewable one. Though each peatland varies, one centimetre depth of peat may take an average of 10 years to accumulate, and less than 10 minutes to burn.

Rwanda energy mix

Rwanda’s energy comes from a diverse mix of renewable sources. Hydro-power is the main contributor at 59%, followed by thermal (40%) and methane (1%). There are also ambitious plans for off-grid power from solar.

Peat power is considered one of these more sustainable indigenous sources of energy. It has the potential to contribute nearly 20% to the national energy supply in five years’ time.

The Gishoma plant is nestled within the Nyungwe Forest National Park.
Shutterstock

It’s estimated that there will be sufficient peat deposits to power Rwanda for 30 years, or some proportion of the country at least. The enhanced power that will come from the Gishoma and Gisagara peat-to-power plants is seen as an important part of the country’s development provision.

The plans are enabled through financial support from the African Finance Corporation, the Development Bank of Rwanda and Finnfund, the Finnish Development Finance Company, among other lenders. Finland has expertise in peat extraction and its use in the energy industry, with an average of 5% of its national supply coming from peat. This was encouraged by subsidies until recently.

But where is Rwanda’s peat?

The Gishoma plant is nestled within the Nyungwe Forest National Park. This is an

untouched natural rainforest that is filled with exciting biodiversity.

The park’s website boasts of the presence of hundreds of species of trees and orchids within the park, such as the swamp-dwelling Eulophia horsfellii. It’s also host to numerous plants species of medicinal value, like the East African satinwood, Zanthoxylum gilletii, and to one of the last stable populations of chimpanzees in East Africa. But there is no mention of peat. It’s evidently not a key feature for the average tourist.

There are vast areas of peatlands across the Tropics that we are only now starting to map and understand their full extent and carbon content. For example, it was only a few months ago that the first map of the world’s largest tropical peat complex was published. Around 145,500 square kms of peat swamp forest was found in the central Congo Basin.

There may well be vast resources of peat in Rwanda that local residents have known about for years, or that the Finns have sniffed out recently, of which science has yet to be told or be concerned about. But whatever the scenario defining the nation’s peaty asset and wherever it is exactly, it is unlikely to be there for much longer if peat-to-power generation continues to be Rwanda’s cost competitive energy solution.

Given that it takes thousands of years to accumulate just hundreds of centimetres of peat, is peat-power really the solution to the nation’s energy needs? Can the Elon Musk’s out there create an energy-storage solution quickly enough that renewables make a serious contribution?

For now though, Rwanda is set to power through its peat.

Lydia Cole, Researcher Associate of the Department of Zoology; Environmental Scientist, Rezatec Ltd., University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Happy World Wetlands Day!

Today is a day to celebrate and spread the word about our world’s wonderful wetlands.

Borrowed from the World Wetlands Day website. (Thank you!)

On this day 46 years ago, the Convention on Wetlands was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar.  Since then, the 2nd February has marked the signing of this Ramsar Convention: “an international treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”.

Wetlands are increasingly acknowledged for their importance in controlling the quality and quantity of water flowing across landscapes, as reflected by the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day: Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction.  They are also important for biodiversity conservation, for filtering pollutants from water supplies and of course our magnificent peatlands are critical for sequestering and storing atmospheric carbon (in their intact form).

Perhaps it’s time for a World Peatlands Day?

To celebrate the day and how peatland management has changed in the UK and Ireland over the last few generations, from predominantly extraction to conservation, here is a poem by Seamus Heaney:

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.




Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down




Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.




The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.




By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.




My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.




The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.




Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

Part of the missing carbon sink?

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A swamp in northern Borneo, same-same-but-different to those in central Africa.

Yesterday, a very exciting article was published in Nature, describing the vast area of peatland that has just been mapped and measured in the Congo Basin.  It’s even bigger than Wales, apparently.  It was discovered by Dr Greta Dargie and her former supervisor, Dr Simon Lewis, after many a long and hard hour spent traversing the unstable, humid and mosquito-ridden peatlands of the DRC and Republic of Congo.

The ‘finding’ of this peatland has elevated our most recent estimate of the magnitude of the peat carbon store across Africa by an incredible five times; vastly increasing our calculation of the total volume of tropical peatlands also.  Whilst it’s probably no news to local people that there’s a massive swamp in their back garden, it is unlikely that they, and evidently the global community, appreciated the real extent of this waterlogged forest and how much peat it was hiding underneath.  Why should they?  Underground carbon (a.k.a. peat), along with its climate change mitigation powers (and REDD+ revenue potential), is a relatively abstract concept.  But a hugely important natural phenomenon.

Given the remote location of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands the threat of industrial agriculture is unusually rare (unlike in Southeast Asia).  However this carbon store is not immune to the potential and pervasive impact of climate change, and specifically climatic drying, where evapotranspiration may exceed precipitation, as Professor Sue Page aptly explains.

I was honoured to be asked to comment on this important finding for a piece being written by the International Business Times.  I think I said some of what was quoted.  The Guardian has written a piece covering the work and its significance, as well as the The New York Times.  And for a more detailed account from Simon, have a read of The Conservation.

Well done, Team Congo-Basin, on such a spectacular peat of work.  Now we need to keep it there.

Still time….Before the Flood?

This time last week I was feeling a strange mixture of distraught, angry and empowered.  The latter emotion primarily because nothing else seemed to be very important anymore, compared to the task in hand, i.e. sorting out the mess we’re rapidly making of our planet.

If you haven’t seen it yet, please watch Before the Flood.  It is an honest, hugely powerful portrayal of the challenges we’re facing with living “sustainably” on Earth, conveyed through the eyes of a very talented and passionate environmentalist*.  As UN Messenger of Peace for the Climate, Leonardo DiCaprio travels around the world for two years, observing the impact we are having on it, from the melting of the Arctic ice sheets to the burning of the peatlands of Southeast Asia.  It’s as beautiful as it is harrowing.

There are so many different ways we’re doing damage to the natural and semi-natural environments of this world; in some circumstances with a (dwindling) level of ignorance of the impacts and in some cases with full knowledge (and abandon) of them.  Hypocracy Money rules.  Trump got in.  The burning continues.

If we don’t all consider what’s going on out there, how we’re contributing to it, how we’re implicated in it (it is in our back yard) and tell the people above us that we care, the ecosystems on which we completely depend will continue to go to s**t.

Please watch it.

*As much as a multi-billionnaire (I presume, since millionnaires are old hat) can be an environmentalist….but he doesn’t shy away from the incongruities/inevitable hypocricy.  (If only a few more of the celebrity billionaires out there were as useful as this great chap.)

Beyond the Haze

Today, a short piece I wrote with several other C-PEAT-land scientists was published on the Journal of Applied Ecology blog.  Last October, whilst we were excitedly sharing our tales of new peatland findings at the inaugural workshop in New York, our beloved ecosystems were going up in smoke on the other side of the world.  Thousands of years of environmental history have burnt away over the last nine months in Southeast Asia, thanks to the natural phenomenon of El Niño.  It’s ofcourse absolutely nothing to do with our extensive draining of peatlands, subsequent compaction and complete conversion into oil palm and acacia plantations.  (There’s a blog post and paper to come on this.)

I’ve pasted our concerned correspondence below.

Beyond the Haze: Implications of the recent fires in Indonesia for tropical peatland research

This post was written by members of C-PEAT (Lydia Cole, Ian Lawson, Dave Beilman, Dan Charman and Zicheng Yu) to voice the group’s concern over the consequences of the recent extensive burning of Indonesia’s peatlands for science. C-PEAT (Carbon in Peat on Earth through Time) is a thematic group of PAGES (Past Global Changes), and had its inaugural meeting at Columbia University in New York, in October 2015.

Many reports and commentaries concerning the recent fires in Indonesia, including here, have been published over the last twelve months.  El Niño conditions, bringing drier weather to this part of Southeast Asia, in combination with extensive draining of peatlands, resulted in a tinder box that started burning in mid-August of 2015 and continued even as the world’s nations gathered at COP21 in Paris to discuss tools for sustainable forest management.

The consequences of these fires for society, the economy and the environment are still being quantified.  The areal extent of last year’s burning across Indonesia has been estimated to exceed 2.6 M ha (World Bank), with up to 90% of the subsequent haze resulting from peatland fires.  Peat volume losses over such a large area are likely to represent, by analogy with the 1997 fires (Page et al., 2002), a globally-significant loss of stored carbon.

While we share the widespread dismay at these social, economic and environmental consequences, we wish also to point out the loss to science represented by the apparently relentless destruction of Indonesia’s peatlands, a topic which was discussed at the inaugural PAGES Carbon in Peat on Earth through Time (C-PEAT) meeting last October.

Peatlands, which store atmospheric carbon as partially decomposed organic matter, provide a rich diversity of palaeo-proxies that can be used to measure the effect of past climatic change and human activity on ecosystems.  Akin to the loss of climate histories from disappearing glaciers worldwide (Savage, 2015), our library of environmental history in Indonesia is going up in smoke.  The importance of understanding the past will only increase as we enter historically unprecedented climatic regimes and environmental states, for which the prehistoric palaeoenvironmental record is a key resource for insights and analogies.

References

Page, S.E., Siegert, F., Rieley, J.O., Boehm, H-D.V., Jaya, A. & S. Limin. (2002) The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, 61-65.

Savage, N. (2015) Glaciology: Climatology on thin ice. Nature 520, 395-397.

C-PEAT inauguration

Here is a brief report I wrote for the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group (TPWG) blog last week, on the recent C-PEAT meeting convened at Columbia University in New York, for which I was honoured to attend as an early career scientist.

About a month ago, from the 11th to 13th October, 52 scientists met at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York, to discuss peat.  The meeting was convened by Zicheng Yu from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, who was responsible for garnering support for this working group of PAGES.  The newly fledged C-PEAT, Carbon in Peat on EArth through Time, aims to bring together peat scientists from across the world and from a range of disciplines, to answer questions about how carbon in peatlands has changed throughout the past and how it might vary into the future.  I was fortunate enough to attend the meeting, along with Ian Lawson and various others that have or are still working with the UKTPWG, including Outi Lähteenoja.  Here is a brief report of the meeting.

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The meeting crew, getting the C-PEAT ball rolling.

The main questions that led discussions during the workshop were:

  • Why is there peat?
  • How much and how fast can peats accumulate?
  • What will happen to peat in the future?

By the end of the three days, I think we were closer to knowing more clearly about what we don’t know, than to actually answering these questions!  But we exchanged a huge amount of new information in the process, some of which I’ve reported on below, under each question.

Why is there peat?

We spent one break-out session seeing if we could provide new insights into what the critical controls on peat formation might be.  After learning from the talks about the huge range of peatlands present today and during the past, from the diverse forested swamps of Papua New Guinea, to the high-altitude Andean ‘cushion’ peats, to the organic-rich sediments buried under glacial tills in Canada, all with their differing physical parameters, this proved challenging.  As did attempts at making generalisations about peat formation through time; time being hundreds of millions of years.  One scientist aptly commented that “coal is carbon; peat is water”, which helps to explain part of the picture!  There were a number of discussions about deep-time peats and coal, and whether we could make inferences on their development dynamics based on more recent peat formations.  A work in progress (by the Deep-time andBuried Peats Thematic Groups).

How much and how fast can peats accumulate?

What are the differences/similarities in peat accumulation rates along different temporal and spatial gradients?  Answers on a postcard please.  In a very interesting presentation, René Dommain, Smithsonian Institute, presented on tip-up pools in tropical peatland ecosystems and the importance of considering them when interpreting age-depth modelling and peat accumulation dynamics.  Rene’s fieldwork focused on the coastal peat domes of Brunei, but some other spectacular and more unexpected domes and craters were brought to everyone’s attention:

*Numbers not verified – may have passed through multiple Chinese whispers.

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Breakfast chats (about peat?!) in the sunshine, at the Lamont-Doherty campus of Columbia University.

What will happen to peat in the future?

Where will new peat formations arise?  Where will peats disappear?  And where will they persist?

Will bogs persist with greater frequency than fens?  Nigel Roulet, McGill University, presented on the greater resilience of bogs compared to fens, with bogs maintaining hydrological independence from the surrounding environment and therefore being more able to resist the potential impacts of climate change.  Jeff Chanton, Florida State University, talked about the SPRUCE mega-project he’s involved with, in the Marcell Experimental Forest in Northern Minnesota, which is attempting to monitor how temperate peatlands respond to changes in climate.  Watch this space for the release of the experiment’s findings.

Ian Lawson, University of St. Andrews (and key member of the UKTPWG), presented on what we know about the tropical lowland peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon.  He also talked about the threats to their persistence, one of which was an unlikely suspect: aboveground carbon maps, which demonstrate the relatively lower standing carbon stocks in peatland areas compared to in terra firme forests, and fail to illustrate their rich belowground carbon store.  Ian highlighted the danger of these maps being used in land use decision-making in Peru, potentially erroneously directing forest conversion to these carbon rich areas.  And these peatlands don’t have the emotive conservation pin-up that their Southeast Asian relatives have.

Steve Frolking, University of New Hampshire, presented an analysis on carbon losses from tropical peatlands under different land use change scenarios into the next 50 years.  An interesting desk-based exercise that warns of the strong emissions legacy of the peatland management practices that are pervasive across much of Southeast Asia now.

One major area of peatland that we still know so little about was sadly not represented at the meeting: the peat swamps of Central Africa.  Perhaps that gap can be filled by members of this group at the next meeting.  There was also a distinct lack of anyone named Pete there.

As we move into the Anthropeatscene (!), we need to consider exactly what and where the threats to peatland persistence are.  And what the opportunities are for peatland conservation.  I’m sure everyone is aware of the fires that have been raging in Indonesian peatlands over the last few months (if not, look at this and this previous post), exacerbated to a great degree by unsustainable peatland management.  One big question the workshop considered was: what unique contribution can C-PEAT make as a group to peatland science and conservation, in both the tropical and temperate zone?

If you have the answer, or indeed any answers to the questions above….or are working on them, do join the C-PEAT mailing list by signing up here.

NHS for Soils needed!

Every month, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology releases several publications, known as POSTnotes, that aim to provide an easily digestible overview of research in different areas of science and technology, as a tool for policy makers.  One released this month is all about securing UK soil health, in additional to the principally-important parts about peat.  I’d definitely recommend reading it if you’re interested in learning of the current status and threats to this ‘renewable resource’.

Renewable is a slightly misleading word.  Peat is a renewable resource if we wait about 3,000 years between harvests.  Fossil fuels could also be renewable if we could hold off popping the kettle on again for another 300 million years or so.  There should probably be a time frame attached to each use of renewable, and a conservative one at that, based on the Precautionary Principle.

A maturing sugarbeet field in East Anglia.

A maturing sugar beet field in East Anglia.

We basically need some, or even one coherent and policeable policy that governs sustainable soil management in the UK (and Europe), so that we can adhere to the Government’s plan to “grow more, buy more and sell more British food” over the next 25 years.  The world needs our sugar beet and broad beans.  And we all so desperately need our soils.