Poland's Energiewende. No, Not a Polish Joke. A European Transition.

Protester holding sign stating "Katowice choked by smog", protesting the notoriously high smog levels in Poland
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Protester holding sign stating "Katowice choked by smog", protesting the notoriously high smog levels in Poland

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

A few figures first: Poland is the largest coal producer in Europe. Each year, Polish mining extracts 75 million tons of coal. Coal power in Poland accounted for 85% of the country's electricity production in 2015 – 51% from hard coal and 35% from lignite coal. The Polish government said that Polish coal is a national treasure because it gives us energy independence.

Not only has Poland continued building three new giant coal-fired power plants (in the cities of Kozienice, Opole, and Jaworzno), but is also considering building two more, in Ostroleka and Pulawy, despite serious doubts about the economic sense in this kind of investment. Wholesale energy prices are – thanks to Renewable Energy Sources, RES – so low that, according to many independent experts, building new, large-scale 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 it is unfair to Poland. 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 offset by taking into account the CO2 absorption of Polish forests.

New Renewable Energy Sources law

In recent months however, the course of the energy transition in Poland has changed, not to say: almost stopped. On May 5, 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 a transition towards a more renewables-based energy policy, this proposal essentially maintains the current state of coal in Poland. Environmental organizations appealed in vain to the government for feed-in tariffs for small-scale electricity generators, but only a bonus system for renewable energy producers was introduced. Small-scale producers of electricity (for example up to 7kW rooftop solar PV system) will get a 70% discount on repurchase of electricity by the energy supplier for every kWh released to the electric grid. These rules are expected to enter into force on July 1, 2016, but it is not yet clear 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 as the parliamentary discussions of the RES bill, the National Environmental Fund delayed the start of a parallel support scheme for micro-producers that included preferential loans and grants. It is somehow hard to believe this could be a 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 wind turbines 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) commented. 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 generating 10,231 GWh, which means an increase of 40%. This makes the wind power capacity almost as large as in Denmark.

What it’s 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 from the European Commission about the rising problem of air pollution and the 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 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 solar photovoltaic farms was launched in Ostrzeszow in July 2015 (100 km from Wroclaw). It has almost 2 MW capacity and has been financed by a privately-owned local company and with EU funding.

Many companies and factories decided to build their own electricity sources to ensure additional sources of energy in case of a distribution network failure, 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 5,000 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 is happening. Real change takes place in people's minds; today, citizens’ awareness of environmental issues is the highest in Polish history. But it will still take many more steps.


This article is part of the Heinrich-Boell-Stiftung series on "Energy Transition Around the World".