Poland shakes off coal-dependency stereotypes

A factory producing components for wind farm farms in Szczecin, Poland, June 2017. [Mike Maaren/Shutterstock]

Poland has been steadily growing its share of renewable energies in an effort to decarbonise its economy, challenging stereotypes that paint it as the coal-addict of Europe. However, the deployment of renewables appears to have come to a halt since the 2015 peak.

By 2020, 15% of Poland’s total energy consumption must come from renewable sources, according to its national action plan under the EU’s renewable energy directive.

So far, it is just below 12% – and the trajectory is looking good.

2015 was the year of renewables energy in Poland: it increased its wind power capacity by 27% and more than doubled its solar capacity.

But it was also the year when the new conservative government was elected, who resisted any talks of coal phase-out and recently took to importing US coal to substitute Russian imports.

“There are a lot of stereotypes about Poland relying only on coal,” said Marta Gajecka, vice-president of the Polish Electricity Association (PKEE), at an event in the European Parliament on Wednesday (22 November).

These are well founded: Poland is still highly dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation (80.3% in 2015 compared to an European average of 47.4% according to Eurostat) and is the largest burner of coal in the EU.

Yet in only a few years, it was able to increase its wind power capacity exponentially, currently only slightly below the EU’s average (13.1% in 2015, compared to 14.4% across the bloc).

“The whole region needs to follow old EU members to bridge this gap and to fulfil European goals, and we are doing it,” Gajecka said.

New wind projects

Poland is looking to build two new offshore wind projects. The cost of energy from offshore wind turbines was more than €100 euros per megawatt/hour in 2016 – which has now halved, making it attractive for investors and countries worried about meeting their energy targets.

But this energy revolution seems to have come to a halt. Pierre Tardieu of WindEurope pointed out that whereas in 2015 Poland installed 1.5 gigawatts of wind-power capacity, making it one of the fastest growing markets in Europe, in 2016 this amounted only to 600 megawatts.

And in 2017, it was “almost nothing”. Updated data would paint a very different picture, he acknowledged.

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The unfolding crisis in the coal sector is leaving Poland with a looming power generation gap which is forcing decision-makers to reconsider the country’s energy mix. But politicians have until now delayed hard decisions and a transparent debate about it, says Joanna Maćkowiak Pandera.

Retroactive changes

This, he says, is due to recent retroactive legislative changes which disrupted investors’ confidence, including a new real estate tax applying to windfarms, and an increase in the minimum distance between wind turbines and residential areas.

The same is true for a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania have not built any new turbines since 2016.

Solar tells a similar story. After huge investments in photo voltaic capacity in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria achieved their renewable energy targets for 2020 (14% and 11% respectively), and were under no further pressure to increase capacity.

As a result, almost no new solar panels were installed. New retroactive legislation introduced in 2015 mean that solar power production actually dropped by 20% in Bulgaria, according to Solar Power Europe’s global market study.

According to Eurelectric, representing electricity providers in Europe irrespective of the energy source, these regulatory changes increase the cost of capital and highlight the need for financial support from the bloc in order to fossil-dependent countries to invest in new, clean energy capacity.

“There is a risk that the gap between western Europe and central Europe is widening,” Tardieu said.

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