The Ignored Potential

After years of standstill, the Polish debate on the future of energy production is gaining momentum. In face of a central government unwilling to push for any changes, local governments increasingly become the driving force behind an energy (r)evolution. But their success is far from certain.

For those few still hoping for a change of the Polish energy policy, the last decade was a test of patience. A few times the hopes were high, like in September 2000, when the Polish Parliament, with a majority of 395 to 5, adopted the Development Strategy for the Renewable Energy Sector which included very ambitious goals concerning the share of renewables in the energy sector for 2010 and 2020. Or in July 2012, when the newly created Department for Renewable Energy presented the draft of a Renewable Energy Act that included the introduction of feed-in tariffs for small renewable energy units. But in both cases, as in many others, hopes were quickly dashed. The strategy was never implemented and the progressive draft of the Renewable Energy Act from 2012 was completely rewritten several times stripping the government of any dependability as far as shaping Polish renewable energy policy was concerned.

And the degree of disillusionment even increased. The current support mechanism, introduced as a result of pressure from Brussels, strongly benefits the large players in the power sector leaving individual power producers and consumers no chance to benefit from the kind of ‘energy revolution’ taking place in many other European countries. Instead of using the support mechanism to develop new capacity and create jobs in Poland, the large state-owned energy companies receive subsidies for burning mostly imported biomass with very low efficiency in their inefficient coal-fired power plants. Power generated in large hydro power plants built in the 1970s and 1980s is supported in the same way as new PV plants and wind energy.
Although the most recent draft of the Renewable Energy Law will make it easier for small producers to connect to the grid, they receive only 80% of the average wholesale electricity price of the previous year – that’s less than 50 €/MWh. This is an obvious discrimination in comparison to the large producers who currently receive 100% of the average electricity price of the previous year. In addition, for every MWh, larger producers of energy from renewable sources – which in Poland also includes power from biomass co-firing and old hydro power plants – receive green certificates worth between 35 and 45€.

Yet despite unfavorable circumstances for the development of distributed renewable sources of energy (RES), there is something happening at the local level. In a recent article for Euractiv, the mayor of Bielsko-Biała in Eastern Poland describes numerous initiatives taking place at the municipal level aimed at developing RES and increasing energy efficiency. In an interview, the mayor of the Warmian-Masurian Voivodship, Jacek Protas, complains about highly restrictive regulations concerning the necessary distance between wind turbines and residential areas and argues that Poland had no other choice but to develop RES. Very often, support for renewable energy is generated by opposition to highly polluting alternatives, such as lignite. In July, citizens from four Voivodships decided to join forces and demonstrate in Warsaw against the construction of open pit mines in their regions.

No doubt, there are also protests against wind energy resulting from the lack of knowledge and a lack of consultation with the local citizens. But just like in Denmark in the 1980s and Germany in the 1990s, there has been increasing support for distributed RES at the local level also in Poland. According to a survey conducted at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin in the end of 2013, the preferences of local authorities are very different from the priorities of the national government. Instead of focusing on investment in coal, nuclear power and shale gas, local authorities demand more support for local energy. On the question of which sources of energy should be supported in Poland, 85% of the participating local authorities mentioned solar energy, 65% favoured wind power, and 58% mentioned hydro energy. The least popular sources of energy were lignite (18%), nuclear (19%) and hard coal (28%).

The reasons for such strong support for distributed RES are not strictly environmental. For 69% of respondents, the development of RES is associated with an opportunity for economic development, and 59% are hoping for additional income for the community’s budget. But there is also a sense of powerlessness given the obstacles that the Polish government creates to slow down the development of distributed locally owned RES. As a representative of a local community commented: “Could you influence policy makers to create legislation that’s simple and unambiguous and that helps those wanting to invest in renewable energies?”

The voice of local communities has already been heard by some parties. The strongest supporter of RES has been a relatively new party called Your Movement. But due to the very liberal views of its leader, Janusz Palikot, it is rather unlikely to receive much support in the rather conservative rural areas. Much more important may be the change of tone of the Polish People’s Party (PSL), which, in the past, was especially popular among farmers. Currently, the PSL is a junior member of the ruling coalition government. Although its leader and current Minister of Economy, Janusz Piechociński, is still formally supporting the construction of nuclear power plants in Poland – otherwise he would quickly loose his position – his party has a very different view. In January, during its party convention, the PSL discussed abandoning the construction of nuclear power plants and spending the money on renewable energy as part of their election programme. The proposal did not make it into the final version of the programme, but the document mentions the need to speed up the development of renewables three times – whilst there is nothing on the need to develop nuclear energy in Poland.

The long-time leader of the party and former Minister of Economy, Waldemar Pawlak, was especially vocal about the development of renewables in Poland. In recent months, he criticised the draft of the Renewable Energy Law as discriminating against consumers who would like to produce their own electricity – so called prosumers. He insisted on introducing the possibility for local producers to sell electricity directly to their neighbours instead of being forced to feed it in to the grid at the very low price. In this case he was referring to the cooperatives system introduced in Germany. Pawlak has also pointed out the potential for job creation resulting from the development of a renewable energy industry: “If we replace hard, physical jobs in the mining sector by new jobs in the renewables industry this will be a positive step in the right direction.”
The PSL has a small chance of being an important force in the next government but it has participated in most governments in the last 25 years. Furthermore, with the popularity of renewables at the local level, there is a chance that other parties might become more open towards renewables.
Unfortunately, the potential for increasing support for RES at the local level in Poland has, so far, raised only very little attention from the German government and the European Commission. The potential for cooperation between communities from different countries could take away the fears of Poles concerning new and unfamiliar energy sources. According to the survey mentioned above, only 5% of communities in Poland cooperate on energy with communities abroad, and merely 3% participate in international exchange concerning climate change. At the same time, more than half of them have never heard about the energy transition in Germany.

At the European level, Poland is, yet again, demanding additional money for the modernisation of its power sector. In the past, this money has been spent on the construction of new coal fired power plants, like in Opole, and therefore only serves to maintain the existing dominance of the big players in the energy industry. Taking into consideration the record earnings of state-owned energy companies, especially the biggest of them, Polish Energy Group (PGE), further support from the European level may even allow these companies to build nuclear power plants. What is needed instead is large scale financing of small scale projects that will increase the support for renewables at the local level. The Polish government keeps ignoring all rational arguments concerning the future of the power sector, but in light of the upcoming elections it cannot ignore the increasing support for renewable power at the local level. By learning from the experiences of other countries and avoiding their mistakes Poland can one day become the green leader of Central Europe – it just has to recognise the potential and act on it.

Fotocredit: Cayusa CC BY-ND 2.0

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