The Polish Energy Drought

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The extreme heatwave this summer put additional pressure on the Polish power system. Energy planners and policy makers in the country should no longer just be worried about power outages in winter, argues Michal Olszewski. Summer heat could be just as disruptive.

Poles prayed for rain these days. It was not raining for months, in parts of the country the soil looked like ash and the farmers counted their losses. Last winter was another one with very little snow, while the summer sun was burning like hell. As a result, the water levels in Poland’s rivers and lakes decreased dramatically. Poles suddenly woke up to a landscape that resembles that of southern France in August. Though California and its dramatic drought still seems far away, Poles need to worry about getting enough snow this winter, or the situation next year could be worse than ever.

Poles are beginning to realise that the risk of power blackouts is not at its highest in winter, but during summer when air conditioners and fans are working at full steam. High temperatures and low water levels (water is necessary for cooling the blocks in coal plants) meant that – at the beginning of August – the PSE Operator (the company responsible for transmitting and distributing power) imposed power restrictions to 1,600 of the biggest companies in the country. And Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz announced that summer renovations for coal plants would be delayed until energy deficits were no longer so severe. Some Poles remembered the same rhetoric of that from 30 years ago when similar power deficits occurred.

The energy security portal Defence24 suggests that the heat wave is not the only reason for the problems in Poland’s current energy supply. Equally important is the disastrous quality of transmission grids – as many as half of the high-voltage lines is 40 years or older. Professor Z. Maciejewski from Radom University of Technology has calculated that between 1995 and 2008, Poland saw an increase in the length of transmission lines of 4%, while energy consumption increased by 13% and generation increased by 11% in the same period. According to Professor Maciejewski, there is a growing disparity between the power needs of the manufacturing sector and the feasibility of the transmission system.

There is also a third element to this. Poland has an installed capacity of around 36 GW and a peak demand at around 25 GW (from February 2012). Theoretically, this means a secure surplus of supply; the problem is that this only exists on paper. If we subtract the power blocks that are excluded for various reasons (e.g. renovations, lack of fuel etc.), Poland only has a power surplus of about 2-3 GW. And that means that Poland is on the edge of the power blackouts. To avoid this risk, Poland should invest in new generation capacity of at least 1 GW every year. Total capital expenditures of Polish energy companies over the next 10 years may reach up to 40 billion Euros in total. But so far, nobody knows how to achieve this goal and where take the money from.

The government pays power producers for maintaining power reserves, but this summer, reserves have not been enough. Over the coming years, and due to climate policy, the operator will have to switch off 3 GW. The big question is whether it will be equally hot next summer as this year. How will Poland secure supply of power? This autumn, the energy interconnector connecting the power systems between Poland and Lithuania will start to operate, but this is will have only an insignificant impact on the situation.

Polish power troubles strangely coincide with the predictions by many energy experts: in 2012, the Polish Energy Regulatory Office (URE) warned that the real risks of power outages will come in 2015. However, URE did only pay attention to the situation in winter. It turns out that a hot summer is just as dangerous.

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.