Poland, the host of the climate change negotiations, is going to extreme lengths to protect its coal-fired electricity industry — making sudden changes to renewable energy support schemes, and even going so far as erecting a form of electronic barrier to keep renewable energy from neighbouring Germany out of its grid.
The move appears to have been made with the sole intention of protecting the economic interests of its incumbent, centralised, and heavily coal-reliant grid. As Germany roars towards a decentralised, renewables-based grid, Poland appears determined to stick to the past. The contrast between the two countries could not be starker.
The move to install equipment knows as phase-shifters on transmission links between Poland and Germany is designed to give the Polish grid operator the power to block excess renewables output from Germany entering the Polish grid. As in Germany, a large amount of renewable energy causes wholesale prices to come down, and profits to fall.
The phase-shifters are being tested in coming months and will be installed over the next year by the German network operator 50Hertz, which looks after the grid in the eastern past of the country adjoining Poland. Ironically, 50Hertz is 40 per cent owned by Australia’s Industry Funds Management, which in turn owns Pacific Hydro, Australia’s biggest specialist renewable energy company.
Grzegorz Wisniewski , the president of the Institute for Renewable Energy, says the move is clearly designed to protect the income of the incumbent generators in Poland, and comes as the country is facing a looming energy deficit in a few years time.
“This is such a short-term strategy,” Wisniewski told RenewEconomy. “We should be making the connections bigger, and opening the market up, not closing it,” Wisniewski says, noting that the state-owned utilities returned 10 billion Polish zlotys last year. “They are treating it like an extra tax.”
The move comes as Poland’s own renewable energy development grinds to a halt, hit by changing rules and a lack of policy support, and a renewable energy scheme that has encouraged coal-fired generators to burn biomass to generate green credits.
Poland has a nominal 19 per cent renewable energy target for electricity by 2020, a target imposed by EU 20/20/20 regulations, that requires the economic bloc to reduce emissions by 20 per cent, have 20 per cent renewables, and cut demand by 20 per cent by 2020.
Right now, Poland’s renewable share is just over 10 per cent, but nearly half of this has been provided by “co-firing” at coal-fired generators, who are importing biomass from 50 different countries, including coconut shells from Africa, to generate green credits.
Co-firing accounts for more than 46 per cent of the renewable energy certificates issued so far (its quota scheme is similar to Australia’s). Even the hardline Economic Ministry thinks co-firing is inefficient. Worse, it has flooded the market with certificates, causing their price to fall and making it harder for wind and solar developers to get their projects financed.
What’s more, the government has announced yet another change in its renewable energy policy, declaring just three days ago that the quota system will be scrapped and replaced with an auctioning system – likely to favour the large utilities at the expense of independent power operators.
“This is the worst time in 25 years in Poland for renewables,” Wisniewski says. “This government is doing everything it can not to implement the EU directives.”
Jacek Bladek, the asset management director of GEO Renewables, agrees.
We visited his company’s 22MW Sciecki wind farm (pictured, right) about 80kms south-west of Warsaw, which came into operation early last year. But the prospects for future projects are dim.
“We are going through a difficult time, the industry effectively stopped two years ago,” he says.
Bladek says his company has 1GW of wind projects in the pipeline, and across the country there are around 8GW. Even the grid operator says that up to 8GW can be installed with no problem for grid integrity, so the issue is entirely economic (for the incumbent generators), not technical.
“There is plenty of room on the grid,” he says. Poland is yet to even tap its large resources of offshore wind.
Coal is given primacy in this country. WWF calculates that 95 billion zlotys (around $A30 billion) of subsidies since 1995 have gone to coal, but Poland’s coal reserves are declining rapidly, at least the economically accessible ones. The country already imports 15 per cent of its coal needs, much of this from Siberia.
Wisniewski says the Polish government’s official forecasts are for coal to supply 65 per cent of electricity in 2060. But given its declining reserves, that is impossible. Experts say that within 20 years, the country could be entirely reliant on imports because its own reserves would be too expensive.
Recently, the Poland government ordered the state generation company to build a massive $3.75 billion coal plant, even though the company’s CEO said it would cause the company to lose money because of the high domestic price of coal.
But such is the politics of coal in this country. The right-wing government of Donald Tusk is no fan of renewables, but its attitude pales compared to the even harder right Law and Justice Party, which is favoured to win power in elections. Tusk’s majority has been hit by defections and it now stands at just two.
Krzysztof Tyszkiewicz, a recently retired MP and member of Tusk’s party, says there are few pro-renewable MPs in parliament. “The environmental issue is not important in Poland,” he says.
Organisations such as WWF say it is even worse than unimportant. “When you say that we could live without coal, people look at you as though you’ve just killed their mother,” says Tobiasz Adamczewski, an energy expert from WWF Poland. “But we are going to run out of economically viable coal in 20 years. We are not saying that existing plants should close, but the transition has to happen.” Adamczewski says the organisation is turning its focus away from lobbying the government to appealing to the people directly, with a campaign branded “Yes, Poland can!”
Coal-fired generators are in the firing line, though. Indeed, EU emissions regulations will force the closure of up to 8GW of aging, dirty, coal-fired generation. This is likely to cause an energy deficit.
The Institute for Renewable Energy suggests 88 per cent of the country’s electricity needs could be delivered by renewables (50 per cent wind and 30 per cent solar PV), by 2050.
Right now, it is a long way from that. It has about 2,800MW of onshore wind, around the same as Australia, but just over 1MW of grid-connected solar.
Near the Sciecki wind farm, we also visited an 800kW solar farm at Czerniewice, which, when connected next year, will double the installed capacity of on-grid solar in Poland.
But the developers, Polish company Projekt-SolarTechnik, are facing difficulties. They built the 1.3 million solar farm on the basis that draft legislation would be introduced giving greater incentives to solar installations. But it never went through.
The company, which has built more than 50MW of solar plants in Germany, is losing money on the project, and says it would probably make more money growing wheat, which is what the 2 hectare farm area used to be used for.
“Somebody has to be the first mover,” said sales manager Bartlomiej Susik.
Indeed, about 200 business were set up in anticipation of the feed in tariffs, a huge conference was held in Poland, but resentment from Tusk’s junior partner, the Peasants Party, ultimately killed the bill.
All but a handful of solar farms have disappeared since that plan was rejected, hoping that the costs of solar will fall enough to allow more solar farms to be built anyway. But the industry needs momentum, and Wisniewski says, the utilities are up to old tricks.
The government recently agreed that solar systems under 40kW that lower the price of energy could be installed on the rooftops of homes and businesses with no connection fee.
But the network operators have frustrated installations by insisting application forms be stamped by a certified installer. But there is no such certification system in Poland, so no connections are being made.
That’s not dissimilar to a ruse used by another utility against GEO Renewables. They won approval for a new wind farm, but the utility insisted that the project deliver 45 per cent of its output within “peak hours” of 8am to 8pm, or face a penalty. “That’s not even in the regulations,” Bladek said.
But Wisniewski says such actions — including the creation of a “Berlin Wall” type barrier to keep out German green energy — are just delaying the inevitable. “They can stop renewables for a few years, but not forever.”
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