This article is part of our special report Rural Energy.
Polish rural communities largely depend on low-cost but dirty coal for their heating, but under pressure from Brussels to provide cleaner energy, Warsaw is proposing controversial shale gas wells as an alternative.
"In small villages, each house has its own individual heating system – mostly based on coal – because access to other [heating sources] is difficult," said a Polish diplomat in Brussels.
Many Polish villagers were switching to burning wood in their coal stoves instead – because it was cheaper and locally available, explained the diplomat, who was speaking to EURACTIV on condition of anonymity.
But storage problems were keeping demand for coal high and EU money would be needed to change the situation, according to the official.
"Definitely we must have it because we have to decrease the emissions of the [greenhouse] gases," he said. "Without European money it will be more difficult and take longer."
Shale gas move
Poland currently generates around 95% of its electricity from coal. However, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on 18 September that the government is planning a strategic move towards shale gas production beginning in 2014.
Ninety shale gas exploration permits have been issued so far to energy companies such as Total and ExxonMobil.
Poland is thought to possess around 5.3 trillion cubic metres of natural gas reserves, and Tusk is aiming to achieve 'gas security' for his country by 2035. He said he had been "assured that well conducted exploration and production would not pose a danger to the environment."
But, amid environmental concerns, France has already frozen shale exploration licenses and banned 'fracking' – a process of hydraulic rock fracturing involving toxic chemicals and even radioactive materials.
To allay such fears about shale gas – which Cornell University scientists found had a carbon footprint 20%-100% greater than coal – Brussels announced earlier this month that it would draft EU-wide rules on shale tapping.
"We have very strict environmental rules, and in Poland we are the most water efficient country," he said. "Water is very crucial to us and if there is any risk of water contamination, I do not believe we will start any exploitation."
A 2008 US documentary Gaslands famously showed graphic evidence of shale gas contaminating groundwater supplies, with rural residents lighting their tap-water.
But the diplomat was not convinced. "Contamination could only come from water which is going [deep] into the ground and then coming out because the gas is 4 or 5 kilometres below surface level and the deepest water we use, is from 700 or 800 metres."
A report by the Tyndall Centre in Manchester University found that "There is a clear risk of contamination of groundwater from shale gas extraction," it concluded. "It is important to recognise that most problems arise due to errors in construction or operation and these cannot be eliminated."
Poland does possess other energy resources. A 2009 study by the Global Wind Energy Council found that the country could potentially install 13GW of wind energy by 2020.
Indeed, Warsaw passed a power purchase obligation for renewable energy sources in 2000 and amended it in 2003 and 2008. But a European Commission report in 2007 found that fines were not being enforced and there was a failure of compliance.
Nonetheless, the country has a commitment to achieving a 15% rate for renewables in final energy consumption by 2020 and a 20% rate by 2030.
Problems remain however. The Polish official explained that "we do not have strong enough winds to make these windmills work. Only [in] a few regions in Poland could they be installed."
In scenic rural areas, "people don't want windmills because they say it will destroy the picturesque view," he added
The official also voiced some less orthodox complaints. "Environmentalists say windmills are not good for the birds and the animals living in underground," he said. "They're also not good for fish, because [they make the] fish disappear. In fact this equipment also produces infrasound which we don't hear, but animals can."
Julian Scola, a spokesman for the European Wind Energy Association was taken aback by the charge. "Wind power is supported by all the major environmental groups because it's a clean source of power which combats climate change, the greatest threat to biodiversity," he said.
Wind energy caused fewer bird fatalities than power lines, buildings or vehicles, he stated, and the EWEA had never come across instances of harm to underground animals or fish caused by wind turbines.
"Poland has substantial potential for wind power that the government is not exploiting," he said.
European leaders signed up in March 2007 to a binding EU-wide target to source 20% of their energy needs from renewables, including biomass, hydro, wind and solar power, by 2020.
To meet this objective, EU leaders agreed a new directive on promoting renewable energies, which set individual targets for each member state (see EURACTIV's LinksDossier).
In Poland, the share of renewables was 7.2% in 2005. The target for 2020 is 15% of all energy produced.
- European Parliament:Study: Impacts of shale gas and shale oil extraction on the environment and on human health(2011)
- US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):Hydraulic Fracturing