con la colaboración de
Marcin Obara (Efe)

Poland's belated energy transition: now or never

Kacper Szulecki

9 mins - 29 de Septiembre de 2022, 07:33

The Polish authorities were for years playing down the need for decarbonization, seeing it as a threat to domestic energy security. Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, suddenly it is not climate but precisely security that may accelerate the phase out of fossil fuels. 

Poland is widely portrayed as the land of coal, and a veto player in ambitious EU climate policy initiatives. This is true to a certain extent. Coal constitutes a large share of the energy mix – 73% in the electricity sector in 2021, down from over 90%. Importantly, and unusually from a Western or Southern European perspective, coal is also a key source of heating, serving both central district heating utilities and individual households. With large indigenous coal resources – both of hard coal and the even more polluting, but cheaper brown coal – Poland was understandably interested in the preservation of the status quo in energy policy for a long time.

The reluctant but inevitable transformation
What may come as a surprise to many readers not intimately familiar with the energy sectors is that Poland is also, somewhat paradoxically, one of the EU leaders in renewable energy deployment. Following ambitious plans in the early 2000s, it was only after the introduction of a green certificate system that new renewables picked up – starting with an onshore wind boom. In 2015, Poland saw the largest increase in wind power in Europe, and until recently it was the 7th in Europe in terms of installed onshore wind capacity.

However, renewable energy development in Poland has, more often than not, happened contrary and almost against political will, rather than as a result of ambitious expansion plans. After taking power in 2015, the right-populist Law and Justice party government put a sharp stop to onshore wind development. This was in response to strong demand from a part of its electorate, including the anti-wind energy protest movements, which pooled the Nimby (not in my back yard) sentiments of some local communities, but also saw the sector as foreign-dominated and corrupt. A ban on new wind turbines being built closer than 10x their height to the nearest household effectively strangled any new investment. As smaller investors and foreign developers sought to pull out of the sector, their assets were taken over by state-owned utilities. 

The fact that Poland was able to meet its renewable energy targets under EU regulation, at least on paper, was largely due to the use of biomass. Unfortunately, much of the biomass burnt was not coming from sustainable sources and burned in dedicated, high efficiency installations. An important accounting trick thought up by the government enabled co-firing of biomass (e.g. wood waste) with coal, decreasing the efficiency of both sources and having no positive environmental impact. However, as stricter rules for biomass cofiring were introduced due to both civil society and EU pressure, this source lost its prominence in the sector. 

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In 2016, a change in renewable energy support mechanisms saw the end of green certificates, which were replaced by technology-specific auctions, allowing the government to control just how much new capacity can be built in any given technology and also to bring down the price. As economic, technological and environmental realities became more evident, the government decided that offshore wind will be the pillar of a decarbonized energy system from the end of the 2030s onwards and began to introduce regulation and incentives in that direction. Meanwhile, the low cost of onshore wind, especially with the rising costs of coal, increased the pressure to lift the blockade on new farms.

In the background, and without too much attention, another technology rose to prominence. Poland is surely an unlikely place to see a broad solar photovoltaic expansion, but that is exactly what happened. Although each consecutive legislative change was introducing more restrictive and less profitable solutions, the Poles fell in love with solar PV. The installed capacity skyrocketed from under 1 megawatt to over 10 000 MW in 12 years. In 2022 the sector broke a new record, providing over 1TWh of energy over the month of July. Poland’s PV installed capacity growth has been second only to Germany in the EU in 2021. This massive growth is driven primarily by almost a million individual and small-scale prosumers. Now that the system is saturated with distribute solar power, the logical next step would be to expand home batteries to make auto consumption and system balancing easier. Unfortunately, a proposed novelization of the renewable law introducing support for home batteries has been dropped at the last minute in 2022

Delayed decarbonization, uncertain future
A major problem of Polish energy governance has for years been the inability to produce longer-term strategies which would gain political consensus and provide guidance for investors and regulators beyond short-term interventions. The Polish Energy Policy 2040 strategic document was presented only in 2021, over 12 years since the publication of the 2030 strategy. 

Once it was already published, PEP2040 was quickly judged to be a disappointment and outdated already at the time of publication. The document did not contain any binding coal phase out target. This was only negotiated with the powerful mining trade union later, and set for 2049, the last possible date to appear in line with the Paris Agreement and the EU 2050 decarbonization ambitions. However, the goal only covers coal production, not coal use. 

Next to the already mentioned offshore wind, another pillar of decarbonization envisaged by the Law and Justice government is nuclear energy. Poland already tried to construct a nuclear power plant back in the 1980s, when the decision was taken by the Communist military junta of General Jaruzelski to modernize the crisis-ridden industry. However, in 1990, following the transition from communism, the construction of a nuclear power plant on the Baltic coast was stopped mid-way. After a moratorium, plans were again picked up in the 2010s, but saw no progress until this day. 

The government envisages 1000-1600 MW to go online in 2033, and up to 9000 MW until 2045, but the project already seems to be falling behind schedule. Offers have been made by French, Korean and American investors, and a developer is supposed to be chosen by the end of the year, if any hopes of constructing the first reactor in the 2030s are to be maintained. However, societal resistance to a project of this scale cannot be ruled out, especially that the costs are more than certainly underestimated, and the decarbonization achieved by nuclear is going to be too small and too late to make a difference

With plans for offshore wind and nuclear to go online only in the late 2030s and 2040s, and a strangled onshore wind sector, plus no strategy for biogas and only loose plans for hydrogen, Poland's decarbonization is visibly belated and not in line with European visions, even if the spontaneous growth of renewables is impressive

Ukraine, Russia, and the overlooked problem with gas
Apart from offshore wind and nuclear, the third pillar of Poland's energy transition – the one least talked about by the government – is natural gas. Although it played only a very minor role in the electricity sector, with mor prominence in the household heating sector, gas continuously received a lot of media and political attention in the 2000s. The reason for this was Poland's significant dependence on imports from Russia, which were presented as a security problem. The response to this situation, shared among all governments since 2005, was diversification of supply. A terminal for liquified natural gas on the Baltic coast, reverse flow on pipelines from Germany, and a new pipeline connecting Norway and Poland were all supposed to make the country independent from the Russian supplier

This was indeed achieved, and in 2022 Poland could without major problems drop the longstanding trade relationship with Gazprom. However, natural gas became something of an addiction for the Polish economy, and while the dealer of the drug was changed, the consumption was also expanding. The 2040 energy strategy envisages a 200% increase in gas use in the 2030s and 2040s, something that not only cannot be met with LNG and Norwegian exports alone but makes Poland highly vulnerable to gas price volatility. As the gas price increase in 2021 and 2022 has shown, this economic vulnerability might be more damaging than the security threat of Russian supplies. With the Baltic Pipeline from Norway set to be inaugurated on 27 September 2022, the government is yet to react to these dramatic changes on the market, and perhaps revise its visions for Poland's energy future. 

The immediate problem, apart from gas supply shortages, occurring when Russian gas stopped flowing to Germany and therefore – to the other countries in the region is paradoxically the lack of coal before the winter. Despite large domestic reserves, Poland has been burning increasing amounts of imported hard coal, much of it coming from Russia. This has been flowing in quite freely after 2014, and as investigative journalists have revealed, even from the occupied Donbas region. An embargo on Russian exports means that Poland must quickly find alternative sources and is looking as far as Colombia. But the combination of record gas prices, record electricity prices, and  insufficient coal reserves will make this winter very challenging for the Polish society and economy.
(Here, the Spanish version)
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