A lopsided fight between coal and renewable energy in Poland

CZERNIEWICE, Poland -- Rows of polished black solar panels stand at attention in a former wheat field in this rural village outside of Warsaw. When they are connected to the grid next year, these 800 megawatts of power will double the country's installed solar capacity.

But first the lights must go on in the minds of legislators in Warsaw. The operators say that in the absence of a strong renewable energy law, they expect to lose money on their $1.3 million investment.

A few miles away in the town of Rawa Mazowiecka, behind a highway gas station past miles of warehouses and dull prefabricated apartment buildings, 11 Vesta V-90 turbines churn out 22 MW of wind power.

Poland has the potential for 30 gigawatts of wind energy, industry leaders say, but difficulty in getting financing for projects here has meant just a fraction of that amount has been built.

Asked to name a clean energy success story in Poland, Jacek Bladek, the asset manager of GEO Renewables, which owns the Sciecki wind farm, pauses and rolls his eyes upward.

"It's difficult to say," Bladek said and finally shrugged. "There is no success story about Polish renewable energy, what I can tell."

'Everything is centralized'

Like the sun trying to break through a slate-gray November sky in this Eastern European nation, renewable energy industry leaders here say they must battle to make a space for themselves in Poland's coal-dominated energy market. So far, it's been all uphill.

Unlike neighboring Germany, which has as little sunlight but is the world leader in installed photovoltaic capacity, with about 30 GW in 2012, Poland has no subsidized feed-in tariff system and no long-term incentives to fuel its fledgling industry.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk's administration, meanwhile, has not been shy about its distaste for renewables and strong embrace of the coal that currently provides nearly 90 percent of the nation's power.


"You cannot have a low-emissions energy transformation without talking about coal, because it is the second leading energy source in the world," Janusz Piechocinski, Poland's deputy prime minister, said at a controversial coal conference held parallel to the U.N. climate talks here yesterday.

Gregorz Wisniewski, president of the board of Poland's Institute for Renewable Energy, said he believes Polish citizens want cleaner energy. But, he argued, the coal-friendly government has designed renewable energy laws to keep independent power producers weak, which in turn keeps their numbers small and their ability to advocate for change weak, as well.

"Everything is centralized," he said, pointing out that 80 percent of production belongs to large utilities. Noting that Europe's top utilities have lost about half their market share as renewables have chipped away at the continent's centralized energy model, he said that in Poland, "They are trying to protect this market for themselves as long as possible."

Wisniewski, who has been in the clean energy business for 25 years, said, "It was never easy, but now it is most difficult. I believe the most difficult time is now."

Experiments in losing money

According to WWF, which organized a media excursion to the wind and solar projects, Poland's share of renewables is about 10 percent, but nearly half of that comes from coal-fired burning of wood and other biomass. Another chunk comes from large hydroelectric projects.

While a green certificate system issued for each megawatt of renewable energy used showed early success, prices have since collapsed, and new legislation put forward this week eliminates that system in favor of an auction that industry leaders say still centralizes power in the hands of big utilities.

Wisniewski said there are 1,800 renewable energy installations in Poland for electricity generation, compared to 4 million in Germany.

According to Bladek, the absence of government support for clean energy has dried up financing for renewables. He said nearly all investment in wind stopped two years ago.

"Everybody is waiting for the new regulation which would give some stability," he said. Hundreds of megawatts of wind power is ready to be constructed, and the national grid operators have announced that 8 gigawatts of power could be connected without difficulty. But, he said, "there is no money available."

Bartlomiej Susik, sales manager at Project-Solartechnik, which operates the 800-kilowatt plant on 2 hectares in Czerniewice, said his company has been waiting for new regulations before it connects to the grid. If they are not in place by March, he said, "we will connect on the faulty support scheme that exists" and will lose money doing it.

Asked if there is more money in solar than in the wheat fields his panels now occupy, Susik answered quickly. "No. We are quite confident, no."

Fueling nationalism

Meanwhile, coal remains the undisputed king here, and few Warsaw residents interviewed by ClimateWire had a positive opinion of the European Union's attempt to shift Poland's energy mix or the more than 10,000 people -- including Greenpeace activists who hung a banner on the Ministry of Economy decrying coal's influence -- who have descended on this city for annual climate change talks.

"I think that man and human don't have any chance to change the climate. The climate is changing for thousands of years," said Zbigniew H., 65, a taxi driver in Warsaw who asked his last name not be used.

"Our industry is based on coal, our electricity comes from coal," he said, adding that the European Union is trying to hold back Poland's development by forcing a change before the country is ready. For them, he said, "This is just a business."

Krzysztof Tyszkiewicz, a retired member of the Polish Parliament from Tusk's party, said public antipathy toward addressing climate change and a loosening grip on coal are largely echoes from a coal-centric government campaign. But, he said, the fear that the European Union is trying to harm the country is deeply ingrained.

"That is the problem of our history, of course," Tyszkiewicz said, recalling both Nazi occupation and 40 years of Communist rule. "Polish people are also very ambitious. They want to be at the point of Western Europe as fast as possible," he said.

But, Tyszkiewicz said, he believes clean energy is the future for Poland and the world.

"When I hear that Saudi Arabia is changing their thinking and thinking about renewable energy, we should think about it, too," he said.

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