When Scotland’s search for cheap fuel brought precious bogs to the verge of being lost forever


Rich in biodiversity, the vast expanse of cover peatlands that spans Caithness and Sutherland is the largest of its kind in Europe, a rare refuge for plants and wildlife and with an important role in combating change climate.

The Flow Country is so special that steps are being taken to have its expanse of peatlands and wetlands confirmed as a World Heritage Site.

While the importance of peat in carbon capture is such, delegates to COP26 next month will be able to enter a “Peat Pavilion”, a giant hub where they can explore in detail the history of peat, discuss and negotiate his future.

Yet 70 years ago this winter and a stone’s throw from the climate crisis conference site in the grime of an engineering workshop in Clydebank, a big step forward had been taken towards utilizing the enormous reserves. peat moss from Scotland to power a new generation of power plants. .

If what now appears to be an alarming plan to remove up to 600 million tonnes of Scottish peat for burning in the country’s power plants, not only would Scotland have lost a highly efficient carbon sink, but immeasurable damage would have been lost. been caused to countless rare plants, creatures and the environment.

Long before worries about a global climate crisis, the unveiling in December 1951 of the world’s first peat-fired gas turbine – in fact a modified jet engine – in the Clydebank test shop of John Brown & Co aroused tremendous excitement.

The idea originated in the post-war 1940s, as attention shifted to how to make the most of Scotland’s vast expanses of bogs, with suggestions ranging from sending it to American dust bowls for extracting oils, waxes and chemicals for a variety of products.

The success of Scotland’s new hydropower plants, which overcame natural obstacles to harness the power of Highland water, and the rising costs of coal and oil inspired the use of the hitherto unexplored peat.

In October 1949, a £ 50,000 Scottish peatland study was underway with the aim of determining whether peat could be used as fuel, while Sir Edward MacColl, vice chairman of the North of Scotland Hydroelectric Council and engine of successful hydropower projects, pushed forward with plans for a new source of electric power.

At shipbuilding giant John Brown’s in Clydebank, engineers and scientists were put to work to figure out how to reduce the moisture content of waterlogged peat and develop a closed cycle turbine that could burn it and transform into electricity.

The result, unveiled in December 1951, was an experimental 500 horsepower gas turbine, originally running on petroleum and fitted with a peat combustion air heater and peat drying equipment – the first of its kind.

Its development was, Sir Edward Appleton, chairman of the new Scottish Peat Committee, an achievement “to compare with Stevenson’s rocket and Henry Bell’s comet”.

There was enthusiasm: although peat has a lower calorific value than coal, the total exploitable deposits were estimated at 600,000,000 tonnes, or the equivalent of 500,000,000 tonnes of coal. and enough to keep burning for up to ten years.

Studies have been carried out from Perthshire to Ayrshire, Lewis and the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland to find the best location for a new peat-fired power station. One focused on Flanders Moss in West Stirlingshire, now a nature reserve and one of Britain’s largest unspoiled raised bogs. Existing for 7000 years, much appreciated for its mosaic of sphagnum mosses and a refuge for small creatures, it also narrowly avoided becoming a site of horticultural peat harvesting.

The “most notable results” of the investigation, however, were found hundreds of kilometers to the north, in the 200,000 hectares of peatland cover of Flow Country.

Surrounded by vast expanses of moorland and with a population of just 50 people, Altnabreac in Caithness was hardly known beyond the border of Caithness.

However, the electricity powered by the peat was meant to put it on the map.

In July 1953, Scottish Secretary James Stuart, MP for Moray and Nairn, announced that the small community would be at the heart of a £ 500,000 plan for the UK’s first peat-fired power station, and the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board has begun commissioning a 2000 kW peat-fueled closed cycle gas turbine.

If successful, the hope was to proceed with larger projects “in a number of suitable areas of the Highlands”.

There were many reasons to move forward: In Caithness and Sutherland alone, peat-fired power stations would have the potential to provide work for up to 500 men with up to 20,000 jobs at. across the country.

And once dried up, the once soggy bog could become rich arable land and pasture, supporting dozens of new farms and workers.

A persistent problem was the soggy and fibrous nature of the peat, and whether the John Brown test turbine could operate on a commercial scale.

While hindsight suggests that an even bigger problem would be the loss of intact peatlands and their effectiveness as carbon sinks, while burning peat to generate electricity would result in more carbon dioxide emissions. than natural gas and coal.

This, however, would be for future generations to worry about.

In 1954 national and international eyes turned to Altnabreac’s Braehour peat power plant and its innovative closed-cycle burner.

But while this was a marvel of 1950s technology, it turned out to be the loss of the peat power plant.

Work began in 1954 with huge machines unlike anything seen in the region, delivered by train and used to extract the first peat reserves.

But it was a slow process. A 1956 AGM report to the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board – which would later become part of the SSE energy company – reported: “Peat experiment at Altnabrea: construction of the power station is complete and he erection of the peat processing and spraying plant has started. Steady progress has been made in harvesting peat from a working area of ​​approximately 200 acres. ”

The project was two years overdue by the time large-scale testing began in August 1959. Fortunately for the Scottish peatlands, they were less spectacular than had been hoped.

The brown, fluffy ash created by the scorching peat blocked the heating passages, while the power drawn by the sprayers and fans was much higher than expected, making the entire plant less efficient than expected. had originally hoped.

The costs have skyrocketed. An investment of £ 70,000 needed to modify the gas turbine coincided with an influx of cheap oil imports and improved coal production.

When it appeared that a unit of electricity produced from peat would cost 1.77 d against 1.27 d for a diesel unit, a redesign was inevitable.

By 1960, the dream of peat-based electricity was over.

What was a failure at the time, however, could hardly have been better news for the environment. Peat from Scotland avoided the fate that befell others in Ireland, Finland, Germany and Russia, where another type of turbine method had been adopted.

There was, however, a benefactor of the electricity produced by Altnabreac’s peat turbines.

Transmitted a few kilometers to the north, the electricity generated by the combustion of peat molded by nature over thousands of years has been used in the construction of another type of power station, in Dounreay.

Professor Roxane Andersen of the Environmental Research Institute, UHI, said: ‘We now know that our degraded peatlands in the UK generate around 23 million tonnes of CO2e yr-1 into the atmosphere, enough to pass the all of our land use sector from a network flow to a net source.

“This perhaps illustrates the importance of keeping peatlands moist and in good condition, and the role that peatland conservation and restoration can play in our current efforts to limit global climate change and biodiversity decline.

“Global change was not a reality in the 1950s and subsequent decades, when peat was seen primarily as a resource to be exploited and peatlands as areas to be targeted for land use conversion.

“If the large-scale mining plans had been carried out, their legacy today would be even higher emissions, and most likely the loss of some wildlife and peatland refuges.

“As our understanding and appreciation of peatlands grows, it remains a challenge to convey the urgency with which we must act to protect the peatlands that remain and those that need to be restored now. ”

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