European perspectives

Poland’s Energiewende. No, not a Polish joke. A European transition

2015 saw Polish PV increase by 240 percent and wind farm generation by 40%. Despite these impressive numbers, Poland still remains the kingdom of coal.

by Ireneusz Sudak, energy journalist, Gazeta Wyborcza

Some figures first: Poland is the biggest coal producer in Europe. Each year, Polish mining extracts 75 million tons of coal. Coal power in Poland accounted for 81% of the country's electricity production in 2016 - 48% from hard coal and 33% from lignite coal. The Polish government said that Polish coal is the national treasure because it gives us energetic independence.

Not only has Poland continued building three new giant coal power plants (in the cities of Kozienice, Opole and Jaworzno), but is also considering to build more, in Ostroleka and Pulawy, despite serious doubts about the economic sense of this kind of investment. Wholesale energy prices are - thanks to Renewable Energy Sources, RES - so low that, according to many independent experts, building new big energy facilities is irrational. However, according to the government, this is not a matter of economics, but of energy safety. Furthermore, Poland contests the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) system saying that this is unfair for its country. According to the Minister of Environment Jan Szyszko, the EU ETS structure should primarily consider the specifics of the individual member states, including their energy mix. He proposes to the EU that national CO2 emissions could be set off through taking into account the CO2 absorption of the Polish forests.

New RES law

Last year, the course of the energy transition in Poland has changed, not to say: almost stopped. On 5 May 2016, the conservative government revealed the long-awaited draft of the new Law on Renewable Energy Sources ("RES Law"). It constitutes the basic regulation on RES and comprehensively sets out the legal framework for doing business in this sector. But instead of transitions towards a more renewables-based energy policy, the proposal basically maintains the current state of coal in Poland. Environmental organizations appealed in vain to the government for feed-in-tariffs for small manufactures of electricity, but only a bonus system for renewable energy producers was introduced. Small producers of electricity (for example up to 7kW of power roof-top solar photovoltaic system) will get 70% discount on repurchase of electricity by the energy supplier for every kWh released to the electricity network. These rules entered into force on 1 July 2016, but it is unclear if there will be real benefits for “pro-sumers” in Poland.

A coalition of environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and WWF criticize the new law, arguing that it hinders access for citizens to cheap, clean and green sources of energy. At the same time of the parliamentary discussions of the RES bill, the National Environmental Fund delayed the start of a parallel support scheme for microproducers including preferential loans and grants. It is somehow hard to believe in coincidence, considering a recent change of guards in the respective office.

Anti-wind bill

The second act related to renewable energy sources is connected with wind generation. As things stand now, the ruling Law and Justice party want to drastically reduce the possibility of building windmills in Poland.

The recent proposal that passed the Sejm at the end of May 2016 foresees that new turbines would have to be constructed at a distance of at least ten times their height from the nearest building or even forests and NATURA 2000 areas. Wind energy experts concluded that with this new legislation, new turbines could only be built in 1% of Polish territory. “The effect of the bill will be a complete elimination of new wind power projects from Poland,” the Polish Association of Wind Energy (PSEW) said. It could be the end of Polish wind farms altogether.

In 2015, Poland installed more wind turbines than any other European country, except Germany. According to the energy regulator at the end of 2015, the total installed capacity was 4,592 MW providing 10,231 GWh, which means an increase of 40%. This makes the wind-farm capacity almost as large as in Denmark.

What's it all about

These law proposals are a deliberate action of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party. Prime Minister Beata Szydło's government is conservative not only in terms of religion and outlook on minority rights, but also in sustainable energy generation. It has been repeatedly said by the government that Poland’s energy security depends on keeping coal. This ignores the recent warnings by the European Commission about the rising problem of air pollution and lack of RES policy.

The transition goes on

So, is it as bad as it looks? Surely not. The year 2015 proved to be a record-breaking year in Poland not only for wind energy, but also for solar energy generation. According to energy regulators, 2015 saw an increase in installed photovoltaic power capacity of 71 MW. This is a huge 240% increase and certainly a milestone for Polish communities and citizens. Photovoltaic systems were installed by municipalities, schools, and local companies around the country. One of the largest photovoltaic windfarms was launched in Ostrzeszow in July 2015 (100 km from Wroclaw). It has almost 2 MW power capacity and has been financed by a privately-owned local company and with EU funding.

Many companies and factories decided to develop their own electricity source to ensure additional sources of energy in case of failure of the distribution network, as well as to reduce electricity bills. Other encouraging examples include the sports hall in Gryfice (North Western Poland, around 200 km from the German border), where installed solar panels help save 5000 EUR annually. Even the state-controlled PKN Orlen, a major Polish oil refiner and petrol retailer, is considering the installation of small wind turbines on its petrol stations.

These small steps are where the true energy transition happening. Real change takes place in people's minds; today, citizens' awareness of environmental issues is the highest in Polish history. But it still takes a lot more steps.