Founded in the hard post-World War II years when sustainability meant staying warm, Bord na Mona (Celtic for 'The Peat Board') was given a mission to take advantage of peat, Ireland’s then-abundant indigenous fuel source.

Peat is essentially sod saturated with oil-like matter that can be chopped into burnable blocks. Bord na Mona once harvested peat on an industrial scale, employing 12,000 in the barren Irish midlands. 

But six-plus decades have taken their toll. It now employs only 2,000. “There’s enough peat to last for another twenty-five years,” Hu Henry, the company’s Director for Innovation and R&D, said. Just as bad, “peat is a high-carbon fuel.”

“There was a realization,” said Gerry O’Hagan, Bord na Mona’s Marketing Director, “that the future of this organization was not really sustainable on peat only.” In addition, a new generation of leaders realized that Bord Na Mona had to confront climate change. That led them, O’Hagan said, to their new motto: “A new contract with nature.” What it meant, O’Hagan went on, “is that we’re no longer going to be a peat company."

“We started off by looking at new uses of peat and environmental uses of peat,” Henry added. “Now we’re talking about different types of renewable energy and clean tech products.” Henry estimated Bord na Mona is “a good halfway towards the transformation of becoming a non-peat company.”

Though it has developed a horticultural branch to turn peat into a fertilizer-like growing medium, Bord na Mona’s first calling was and is energy. “Given that long-term sustainability of peat-fired power stations is a contradiction,” O’Hagan said. “The way to go was into biomass.” The company bought Edenderry Power Ltd., a peat-fired power plant, and began trials with combinations of peat and various biomass sources. It has settled on misacanthus, canary grass and willow. Briquettes now use 15 percent renewable materials and the company expects that to be 30 percent within three years.

Bord na Mona is also looking for ways to make its burning more efficient. There is, O’Hagan said, “the potential for community heating in Ireland.” The company is building a unit to develop combined heat and power (CHP). “We have a very active business unit that’s not revenue-generating today,” O’Hagan said, but it is studying “whether setting up community CHP plants have an application.”

Bord na Mona has even bigger ambitions. “We were the first company in Ireland to develop a wind farm,” O’Hagan said. They have a three-megawatt project in the wind-rich west of Ireland but are permitted for a 360-megawatt facility, “which would make it the largest on-land wind farm in Europe.”

The obstacle is adequate transmission. “The demand for energy is in the east of the country and a lot of the renewable resource is in the west of the country so we have a grid infrastructure issue that we need to resolve,” O’Hagan said. “Eirgrid has made a commitment to resolving it.”

Bord na Mona is planning to build 500 megawatts of capacity over the coming ten years that, in combination with plans for more biomass, is expected to bring Bord na Mona’s renewable capacity to 1,200 megawatts by 2020.

The last part of the new Bord na Mona is a resource recovery business that is an expression of the company’s commitment to its core competencies and its new mission.

“We call it resource recovery,” O’Hagan said. “Most people call it waste management. We see our job as being to mine the waste to get as much benefit as possible.”

Using advanced techniques of mechanical biological treatment (MBT), Bord na Mona now can “either recycle or recover approximately 50 percent of the waste that we collect,” O’Hagan said. “It would be our objective to increase that to 80 percent within the next three to five years.”

It’s a heady ambition, but those are the kind Bord na Mona likes best. And it has a history of doing what it says it will do. “I’m in the company twenty years,” Innovation Director Henry said, “and I have never got peat under my nails. It’s a bit of a misnomer to think that we’re all peat bog people.”