What’s Turf?

“My charger won’t work!” says someone on the trip panicked at least once a day. Inevitably almost every time they’ve just forgotten to switch on the outlet, something we’re not used to doing in America. Ireland seems to take energy seriously, all of its outlets turn off and on saving electricity, the last hotel we stayed at even had you put your room key into a socket to enable lights to turn on so that you couldn’t forget to turn them off when you leave. Small things like this can make a large impact when implemented over an entire country and are a good step towards sustainability and conserving energy.

Another unfamiliar sight to many on the trip are the abundance of wind turbines throughout the countryside, doing cartwheels above the trees. Producing energy in a way that’s better for the environment. Ireland as of 2017 had over 2,000 megawatts of wind power with wind turbines providing 23% of the country’s electric power.

Wind Turbines

It’s not all perfect however, all over Ireland many people, especially in rural areas, are burning turf as a source of heat for their homes. With little tree cover in the country many say turf is the only material easily accessible to them to  heat their homes with. Turf or peat is built up over thousands of years by wet moss compacting over time. Much of Ireland is covered by these turf bogs, easily accessed on family’s land dug up by farmers as a cheap source of fuel. It is dug out of the ground and left to dry out, shriveling up into small, course, black bricks that can be burnt. The problem with this is that turf is a “carbon sink” holding in a large amount of co2, 30% of carbon in the world is stored in peat according to one of tour guides Anthony.  When burned the carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. The government has made moves to try and get people to stop this practice but for many it’s their best access to fuel and they are unwilling or unable to stop the practice. Stopping would mean importing oil or gas because there are no natural gas sources or pipelines in these areas, and this would be costly and also unsustainable.

Dried Turf

Many Irish people are aware and conscientious of the effects of turf burning and care a lot about the environment. They say that on such a small scale, as is the case in many rural areas, only taking what they need does not release enough co2 to make a large impact. People have many different views on the subject, all aware of the consequences and with different view points depending on their lives but make a general consensus. “It’s done here on such a small scale that it’s okay, it’s large scale industrial businesses that would be the problem” is the quote I heard, with little variation, from multiple different farmers who use turf. 

A Turf Bog

A Civil War Issue

While driving through the west coast of Ireland, it was evident that rural Ireland uses wind turbines and turf as their main sources of energy.  Looking out the bus window, I saw miles of wind turbines generating power.  Wind turbines are efficient but they haven’t always been used in Ireland. Throughout Ireland’s history, they relied on cutting and burning turf as the main energy source. Recently, cutting turf as an energy source has been called into question after environmental issues were brought up about burning peat.

Burning turf has been used as fuel to heat people’s homes for the majority of Ireland’s history dating back centuries ago. Many farmers lived on bogland which is where the turf is cut. The farmers would use a sléan to remove the peat and leave it out to dry throughout the summer. Since peat is made up of 90% water, the turf bricks would shrink in size as they dry. Once the turf was dry, it would be burned in a fire to heat the house and to cook with. This practice is still used today by farmers and many people in Ireland to heat their homes. Although using peat as fuel was feasible because it was accessible, it presents a danger to the environment.

A majority of the world’s CO2 is stored in the turf from bog lands. When the turf is burned, that stored CO2 is released into the atmosphere. At the Céide Fields, our tour guide explained, if the CO2 is released into the air it is very dangerous to the environment, therefore, peat land should be protected. On the other hand, we met people who rely on peat as their main fuel source. These people, including Farmer Tom (pictured above), do not think the government should stop them from burning the peat because they as a small farm do not make a large impact on the environment. Tom explained, “The government cannot ban burning peat because it would start a civil war.” But, he does believe the big machines that cut turf are bad for the environment because they can do more damage in one day than he has over 13 years. Although cutting turf has yet to be banned, the government incentivizes farmers to stop cutting turf by offering them monetary compensation. There has yet to be a clear plan for cutting turf going forward since it has been a part of the culture in Ireland for many centuries.  


“Mother Nature is the Best Sculptor.”

“Mother Nature is the best sculptor,” is what my tour guide at the Céide Fields said when he was explaining the landscape around us. Looking to the horizon you can see an endless view of hills and grasslands. This is the view that the Irish grew up admiring. In 2001, the landscape of Ireland began to change. Slowly, large wind turbines were installed. Now a total of 2,878 wind turbines have made their way into Ireland’s hills. In 2015, these turbines provided 23% of Ireland’s energy. Wind turbines were one of the things that Ireland has done to try and use their environment to reduce the ecological footprint they were creating. Flying into Shannon airport, the few things I could see out my window were cows, and wind turbines. Whichever direction I looked, there were a cluster of windmills up close and off in the distance. Most people might think that these structures are obstructing their view of the landscape that Ireland has to offer or deem them “ugly.” However, when people understand what the wind turbines are doing for the environment, they will no longer see them as ugly, but rather something beautiful for something so important.

Another energy efficient step that Ireland has taken are their outlets. When I first arrived at the Park Inn, I immediately ran to an outlet with my adaptor in hand, to charge my phone before the days endeavors begun. I plugged in my charger to the adaptor and plugged it into the wall, and waited for my phone to  charge. However, nothing happened. It was as if my phone was not plugged into an outlet. After trying every outlet in the room, and my anxiety levels growing by the second, I finally noticed the little switch in the middle of the outlet. I plugged my charger into the wall, flicked the switch, and finally my phone began to charge. I was confused at first about this modification of the outlet here, because I had never seen anything like this in America. I later learned that the switch turns on and off the electricity in the outlet. That way when people are not using the outlet, energy is not escaping it in the process. I noticed that every time I plugged something into a wall the switch was always turned off because someone remembered to switch it off when they were done using it. For me, I always forgot to flick the switch when I was done using it. It occurred to me that for the Irish, it must be second nature for them to flick the switch when they are done. Exactly like it is second nature to get in the car and put on your seat belt. After a learning curve, I quickly learned to remind myself to shut off the switch when I was done using it.

As Des, our driver, was saying on a bus ride, we are the generation that is going to make these environmental changes, “It is our job to be the change.” Collectively, Ireland has been taking steps in the right direction to become an energy efficient country. They have learned to work off of the land to give them renewable energy. This way of living keeps the land whole so people can continue to enjoy those stunning views. While some of these methods might be unconventional to us Americans, the way the Irish are living can teach America about the small steps we have to take to become a more energy efficient country. 


Eco Friendly Village?

While traveling around Ireland, I took interest into the dynamic of the Eco-Village and how their community worked. The first place we stopped while in Ireland was Cloughjordan. What was interesting about this village was the construction of the eco village and its relive location towards the center of the Cloughjordan. This eco village could have been located outside Cloughjordans main strip, but even though it was created well long after the village of Cloughjordan was founded it looks like it belonged there. Some interesting things I learned while staying at the eco village is that there is no one in charge of the village and that everybody their makes joint decisions. Mary, one of the residents, told us, “You learn love and hate everyone here”. That really stuck with me because in a community where everyone makes decisions instead of just one person being in charge things tend to get done slower. This was something I noticed about this community as they claim to be self-sustainable; however, they have not been able to use their solar panels they as a community purchased due to technical problems dating back 10 years. This is something I thought was interesting because that meant they got their electricity from somewhere else even though their motto is that they are:

  • Building
  • Sustainable
  • Community

When looking at their motto I found that their vision wasn’t being 100% achieved due to relying on outside energy. One thing I picked up on about the community is that everyone was there for a specific reason, and that was that they wanted to reduce their carbon footprint on the environment. This is something I saw throughout the village as they as a community tried to reduce waste, farm their own food, and reduced water usage. Seeing a community that truly believes that as a whole they could help make a difference was inspirational. While staying in the hostel, we came across apple juice that was for sale and asked about it. Pa, the owner of the hostel we stayed at, told us that they are sold by a member of the community and could also be bought up at the store ran by the hostel’s cook, Johanna and their husband. I thought it was interesting finding out that they tried to shop locally for their food unlike in America where majority of people shop at the supermarket. Overall I believe that if the eco-village wants to grow they need to fix their solar power issue to be fully self sustainable and work towards electing someone to make decisions for the community.



Ask Pete: Should People Burn Peat?

Ireland offers different options when it comes to fuel and energy. One hot topic is the burning of turf. Turf is blocks of peat from ancient bogs that for centuries rural residents have dried and burned to heat their homes.

Because turf is a sponge for CO2, people have mixed opinions on whether or not this fuel should be utilized. For centuries, people living in rural neighborhoods have burned turf to heat their homes. Others, including Anthony, our guide from the Ceide Fields said: “Burning turf is negative for the environment because turf holds CO2 so when it is burned, it releases those damaging qualities into the air.” Turf retains water, acid, and moisture so people need a lot of this resource to last throughout winter. Peat is an important resource to consider when looking at energy options inside and outside of Ireland but it is also necessary to note that there are many pros and cons to burning this fuel. No one can deny the beneficial and damaging effects of burning turf and how those effects alter the environment.

A student is hard at work, learning tips and tricks for collecting turf.

One location where peat can be found is the Atlantic blanket bog land. This prehistoric landscape is where environmentalists can find Sphagnum moss, also referred to as peat moss. It grows a mere one millimeter every year and despite its slow, gradual growth, this moss does not die down. It does not die down because of the collected water, which comes from rain. The moss transforms to turf, which is spread on the ground and the sun naturally dries it out over the hot summer time. This prepares the resource to be burned for the winter time.

Sphagnum moss is acidic and does a great job at preserving everything!

The turf controversy aside, Ireland also demonstrates an understanding and practice of energy conservation. One effort Ireland makes towards energy conservation was demonstrated in the hotel rooms in Spiddal. In order to turn on the hallway, bedroom, and bathroom lights, the room key needed to be slid into the socket by the door. This invention makes an effort to conserve energy by making sure lights are not when a person is not home. Loads of energy is wasted by people who leave lights on when they are not home.

Altogether, Ireland makes efforts to conserve energy and use their resources wisely, although these efforts are not perfect and can be always improved.

Fueling Fire: The Burning of Peat for Energy

Turf at the Killary Sheep Farm

A common, yet controversial source of energy in Ireland is peat, or “turf”, a sort of soil made up of decaying matter. As discussed by our bus driver and tour guide Joe, most people burn peat to heat their homes, particularly during the winter months. The popularity of this energy method was made clear by the number of peat bricks lying in fields as we drove by. There would be rows of what looked like dirt blocks ordered side by side or piled together. At Craggaunowen, our guide Stiofàn explained that the people who lived there hundreds of years ago would also burn peat to cook meals, so the turf was used as a source of energy.

So what exactly is peat?

This source of energy is not available everywhere. Peat is collected from bogland. To cut turf, a person would first remove the surface layer of grass from the ground with a shovel. A rectangular shaped tool called a slain is then pushed into the soft ground, and when it is pulled out, a brick of peat is extracted. These bricks of peat are then laid out in the field, either stacked together in a “teepee” form or flattened rows. The sun will dry the peat, causing each brick to shrink, and the timeline of this process depends on the weather – for example, if it is a rainier season the peat will take longer to dry.

Peat drying in “teepee” form, at the Killary Sheep Farm

There have been critiques of burning peat for energy because of its negative impact on the environment; burning peat releases CO2 into the atmosphere, which destroys the ozone layer and contributes to climate change. A single brick of peat will only burn for 15 minutes or so, which means that vast amounts of peat must be dried in order to last one home an entire winter.

Despite the controversy surrounding the use of peat, it still appears to be widely used by many Irish people. The tour guide at Céide Fields even discussed this issue because some of the peat there was being cut and used for energy. He admitted that peat contributes to climate change, but said that “it’s really the large scale peat burning that causes the problem”, so essentially he argued that the peat burning there was not an issue.

Phantom Energy

Out of nowhere, my laptop dies. My stomach drops.  This device holds my entire life. My pictures, my documents, my music, everything. I am flustered. I look around my room within the hostel at Cloughjordan for someone to help, but no one is around.

“It can’t be dead,” I mutter to myself, anxiously pressing the power button again and again trying to turn it back on. “It’s charging,” I tell myself. Or is it? I check the outlet and realize that, to my dismay, I did not turn the outlet switch “on.” Thus, the entire time I thought I was charging my laptop it was instead slowly dying. I roll my eyes at the nuisance of the on/off outlet switches.

However, later on, I realize the importance of switching the outlets off when not in use. While I had previously always been under the impression that when something wasn’t plugged in that electricity wasn’t being used. That is not the case. Though less electricity is being used when outlets are not in use, if the outlet is not “off” then electricity is still being wasted, this is called phantom energy. Unfortunately, in the U.S., outlets do not give the user the option to switch “off” and thus energy is constantly being used when it is not needed. The energy that is being used is around one to five watts. Though this seems small, it adds up.

“We do not have five earths, we only have one!” Peader, chairman of the Ecovillage, waves a finger at us angrily. The lack of on/off switches on many outlets in the U.S. is just one small example of how our country is operating as if the planet earth is dispensable. From now on I will always be sure to switch the outlets off when not in use, and unplug every device that is not currently being used or charged. Though the energy humans are burning through will not be reversed that easily, every small step counts.

Phantom Precautions

“Could you please let me into room 104, I am locked out”  and “The electricity is broken in my room, can you fix it?” are the questions I found myself asking the receptionist at the An Cruiscin Lán Hotel in Spiddal Village, Galway, Ireland three times on the first day of our stay there. While our two night stay at the An Cruiscin Lán Hotel I locked myself out multiple times, one may ask how is that possible.  The doors to the rooms at the An Cruiscin Lán Hotel locked automatically and I never carried the key when stepping out the room for a quick minute. Not only was the automatic lock system something I was not used to, but also the fact that the key needed to be inserted into a slot inside the room in order for the room’s electricity to run. However during this 14 day trip around the west coast of Ireland I also had to adapt to having flip switches to turn on the electricity for wall sockets.The reason why these two systems exist is because even if everything is “off”  there is still Phantom usage/ standby power usage occurring. Phantom Usage  according to Trent Hamm is when there is still a small amount of energy running through a device when plugged into the wall socket but the item is not in use. Phantom Usage accounts for 5 to 10 percent of the energy usage in a household, averaging $100 per year in US homes according to John Chu . I overheard a conversation while at the Inis Oirr hostel that electricity in Ireland is more expensive than in the United States and has become more expensive over the years, which may just be why Ireland has taken the precautions into saving energy.

Even though similar precautions are needed to save energy in the United States and should be taken as soon as possible, it may be difficult due to the number of Individuals who use energy excessively. I am one of those individuals to use energy excessively as I sleep with my lamp on and usually leave the air-conditioner on all day during the summer season. I also use plenty of standby energy in which I leave everything plugged into the wall sockets all year around; for example, I leave my television plugged in  all year around even though I only use it 6-8 times a year.  However, Ireland has showed me how excessive I use energy and that if the precautions are taken in the United States I can be the one telling others to just flip the switch on.



The Muddy Bog

A Sleán for cutting turf

I walked down the muddy steps, one step, two-step then I walked on a thin wooden platform and I had to catch my balance, wow that was slippery. I caught my balance and I thought to myself how lucky I was that I did not slip and fall into the muddy bog in front of my professors and classmates. Tom handed me a two-sided spade called a sleán (pronounced slawn), which is used to slice blocks of peat from the bog. A bog is a wetland that accumulates peat, which is a deposit of dead plants. A bog is formed when a lake or land with high precipitation slowly begins to fill with plant debris, then new plants grow on the decomposed plants. Bogs create a refuge for a wide range of plants, birds and invertebrate species and are commonly used for grazing sheep and cattle. As Tom handed me the sleán I angled it into the muddy bog, slowly and gently I cut off part of the bog.

Turf drying

Then I gently picked up the sleán and placed the muggy block known as turf (dried sod) onto the grass outside the bog. After placing five or six sods of turf onto the grass they were leaned up against each other in a teepee shape and were laid out in the sun to dry; this is called footing the turf. Once the turf is dry, it is brought into homes or stored in sheds, this turf is then used as fuel to heat up homes. While turf is able to provide heat, are many negative aspects to using bogs as a main source of energy. At the Killary Sheep farm I was told that bogs are partly renewable energy they take hundreds of years to develop, and will not be ready to harvest in one person’s lifetime. Once the habitat is destroyed it can take centuries for the bog to recover from disturbances. Not only does this destroy the habitat of many species but turf also heavily fuels climate change. The turf consists of water, and organic carbon, which was built up over thousands of years and when the turf is suddenly exposed to the air, it decomposes and turns into carbon dioxide which is then released into the atmosphere. Besides the bogs taking a long time to actually grow, bogs can also be a major fire hazard. Peat fires can burn for quite a long time especially if oxygen is present. Is it really worth destroying the earth just to heat up one household? As I placed the cube of turf onto the grass I thought about how it is now going to take over 100 years just to regrow the few cubes of turf I removed from the ground, it will heat a household for a few hours but is that really worth it?

The burning turf


With each step after the other, all I could think about was getting swallowed up by the ground. My peers around me were jumping up and down, creating the surface I was also standing on, to move even without movement from my own feet. It almost felt like being on a gymnastics mat or a trampoline, bouncing with every step. Bogs are the squishy bouncy part of land that contain many layers below the surface. Bogs are common

on the countryside of Ireland, and many people dig out the turf from below surface to use for fire fuel.  In a bog there are many layers, and the bottom-most layers have been around for many years. The layers consist of dead plant remains that are topped by living plants. When the living layer dies, it is also topped with a new living layer and becomes the dead layer. Over long periods of time, the layers compost into each other to become one. The top layer is always alive until it becomes part of the dead layer. The bog consistently produces turf, which the Irish people rely on as fuel source. Wood is not a very popular source for fires because trees are not always readily available. Turf comes naturally from the ground over time, and there is plenty of turf to last a while because it self renews. Families each have their sections of bogs that they harvest turf from and then lay out the turf to dry. After the turf is laid out to dry it is ready to be collected into bags to take back
home. The turf is perfect for fires, and lasts a long time. Another source of energy closer to home, that the Irish are more aware of conserving is something called ghost power. Ghost power loss occurs when say a phone charger is plugged into the outlet, but you are off at work with your phone. Nothing is plugged into the charger, but all day it is running energy. The out
lets in Ireland turn off with a switch, instead of continuously pushing out power out. We learned the lesson the hard way when we plugged all of our Iphones in without flipping the switch and they never charged. Soon after checking to see if all of our chargers were broken, we realized there was a switch to turn the outlets on. My trip to Ireland exposed me to alternate fuel sources as well as giving me ideas for conserving power usage back home.