Poland's Energiewende. A European transition

Energia wiatrowa, OZE w Polsce

The energy transition is appearing on the horizon even in "coal loving" Poland. Surprisingly, this big Central European country has no other option. Thanks to the so-called “Swiss contribution” to new countries of the enlarged European Union (Switzerland pays its modest share for being part of the European Economic Area), several thousands of homes in four communities around Krakow, a big city in southern Poland, will get solar water heating systems.

by Tomasz Ulanowski, science and environment journalist, Gazeta Wyborcza

These “Swiss” solar panels (made by Viessmann – Poles like German products) are not for free. But with a 70 percent grant from Switzerland and a 10-year long technical service paid by local communities, they are truly the best buy. A family of 4-5 people has to pay just about 1,000 euro for the whole system, assembly included. This means that the investment should pay for itself after around six years.

The goal of this program is to reduce Poland’s CO2 emissions (Poland produces around 330 million tons of CO2 every year) and the air pollution that bothers almost every region of the country. In Krakow, the EU limits for PM10 (particulate matter with grains not exceeding 10 micrometers in diameter) in the air are exceeded for almost half a year. Many other cities are among the top ten of the most air-polluted communities in the EU. Most of this pollution comes not from transportation or industry, but from households burning coal and all sorts of garbage for heating.

When Western Europe thinks about greening its electricity generation, Poland has a more basic problem of how to change people’s minds and turn them away from using dirty fuel in their homes. But Poland’s electricity market is also about to change and a lot has happened since Poland joined the European Union in 2004.

Numbers Matter

According to the latest report from Eurostat, in 2013, only 11.3 percent of gross final energy consumption and 10.7 percent of gross electricity consumption in Poland came from renewable sources. And the International Energy Agency’s review of Poland’s energy policies says that in 2011, coal accounted “for 55 percent of Polish primary energy supply and 92 percent of electricity generation.”

Most of today’s renewables in Poland come from biomass. According to the 2014 EurObserv’ER’s report on the state of renewable energies in Europe, installed wind power capacity in Poland at the end of 2013 was 3.4 GW, and photovoltaic capacity was only 4.2 MW. So even though Poland has a climate similar to Germany, Poland is a dwarf when compared to its western neighbor’s solar and wind installations. Theoretically, Germany could produce as much electricity from either wind or photovoltaics as Poland produces from its entire coal power sector.

As depressing as these numbers are, we have to put them into perspective: In 2004, when Poland became part of the EU, its share of renewables in their energy consumption was just 6.9 percent and 2.1 percent in their electricity consumption. Today, the country is on a good track to meet its 2020 targets of 15 percent of gross final energy consumption to come from renewables. It may not seem like a lot, especially when compared to such renewable giants as Sweden (a 49 percent target), Latvia (40 percent), Finland (38 percent), Austria (34 percent) or Denmark (30 percent). But it clearly is a beginning.

To understand how difficult this beginning has been, we have to look at the numbers again. In 2013, around 170,000 people in Poland were employed in the mining sector (mainly coal, but also copper and other metals). Even though 20 years ago the number of miners was twice as large (thanks to the energy sector inherited from the post-WWII era), Poland remains the coal capital of the European Union. And miners form a very important social and political force. Every government that has tried to limit their social benefits or to shut down mines has been faced with fierce opposition.
So is there a place for an energy transition in Poland, something like the great German Energiewende?

The Event Horizon

The answer is yes. Simply put, Poland has no other option. The Polish version of the  Energiewende, though slightly different from the original (in Germany, it means a nuclear phase-out and a rapid build-up of renewables), can now be seen on the horizon.

There are three issues that support this claim:

Firstly, “nearly half of today’s electricity and combined heat and power generating capacity is older than 30 years and will need to be replaced when it reaches the end of its lifetime in the near future.” The current government is well aware of this fact. That is why it has been pushing to build new coal-fired power plants (about 30 percent more efficient, thus less polluting than conventional ones), one nuclear power plant (which is at the stage of location scouting) and investing in shale gas extraction (though the main reason for the last one, besides making money, is gaining greater natural gas independence from Russia).

Secondly, the European Commission is watching. Renewable, local sources of energy are an important part of the newly emerging Energy Union. So the Commission has been stubbornly threatening Poland with fines for its dirty air and lack of a renewable energy policy. Just in February 2015, after years of struggling, the Polish parliament finally managed to pass a new law on renewables. Signed by President Bronisław Komorowski, the new law creates not only decent conditions for big renewable electricity producers, but also very favorable feed-in tariffs for producers and microproducers. Even though the total capacity limit for those tiny – up to 10 kW per unit – producers is just 800 MW, and having reached it, the feed-in tariffs is no longer be available for new facilities, it may be a true revolution. Time will tell, but when Poles see that they can earn good money producing electricity at home (just like they produce Sauerkraut, pickles or jam for winter), they may push for more. And politicians, who now favor big, often state-owned energy companies, will find it hard not to succumb to such demands by its citizens.

Thirdly, in recent years, Poles have become more environmentally conscious. Never before have there has been so much coverage in the Polish media about the air quality in Poland. What is more, according to a recent opinion poll for the Ministry of Environment, 86 percent of Poles believe that global climate change is an important issue; and 74 percent of them think that Poland should reduce its greenhouse gases emissions.

Waste Not

A good example for Poland’s Energiewende is its waste policy. In 2005, only 7 percent of municipal waste was recycled. In 2012, this number had reached 20 percent. Thanks to a new law on waste passed by the parliament in December 2012, Poland is on track towards a circular economy, where waste is either recycled or incinerated and garbage disposal is reduced to a minimum.

Krakow is currently building a combined heat and power waste plant which will be finished by the end of 2015. It is said to cost around 150,000,000 euros, half of which comes from European funds. This plant is supposed to incinerate non-recyclable waste not only from the city but also from nearby communities. Actually, a network of such plants is being built around the country. Poles have a long tradition of burning garbage in primitive stoves for heating, now they are slowly towards a 21st century technology.

In Ustronie Morskie, a small community on the Baltic seaside, an old garbage disposal farm is used to build a 1-4 MW PV power plant. The electricity produced there will support communal buildings. Almost one third of the investment will be covered by EU funds. “We have always burnt coal to heat our houses and meals,” said a local resident of a village near Krakow when I complained about the coal scent in the air. People do not burn coal because they love it, they do it because they have no better fuel. If they could profit from clean(er) energy – in terms of health, money, and convenience – they would certainly go for it. That is how human nature works. Hopefully, the European funding, including the Swiss contribution, is going to change the Polish approach to energy.

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.

This text was originally published in the chapter "European perspectives" in the handbook on the German Energy Transition. For more information about Energiewende, please visit the multilingual website and blog Energytransition.de.