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On the edge of a lake near the Baltic coast, half-flooded and overgrown with fir trees and shrubs, lie the remains of Poland’s last attempt to build a nuclear power plant. Begun in 1982, the project in Zarnowiec was abandoned after years of protests, and its half-finished concrete shell was left to the elements.

Four decades on, Poland is trying again. Last year, the government signed off on a plan to build the country’s first nuclear plant by 2033. Five more are due to follow by 2043 as part of a broader effort to wean Poland’s economy off its increasingly uneconomic dependence on coal.

The final location for the first plant has not yet been chosen. But in villages that dot the wooded countryside around Zarnowiec, there are already placards protesting against the prospect. “Why destroy one of the most beautiful places in Poland?” asks a member of an initiative against a plant near Lubiatowo, a hamlet 20km from Zarnowiec. “Anyone who comes in here [to build a nuclear plant] will have a war.”

Poland’s plan to go nuclear is an example of the stark choices states across the EU are facing as they adapt their economies and energy systems to the bloc’s ambitious climate goals. Last month, the European Commission set out sweeping plans to ensure that the bloc cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030. By 2050, it wants to achieve net zero, in order to make it one of the world’s first movers in the battle to limit the damaging effects of global warming.

Begun in 1982, the nuclear power plant project in Zarnowiec was abandoned after years of protests © Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For most member states, the dramatic decarbonisation is likely to mean a radical adjustment to the way their economies work, and the commission’s latest plans have already sparked a fierce pushback from some countries. But for Poland, decarbonisation will be a particularly tough task.

Following the decision to abandon Zarnowiec and shelve its nuclear plans in 1990, Poland was one of the few former eastern bloc states left without a nuclear reactor as it embarked on the shift to capitalism after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Instead, its economy was, and remained, heavily dependent on coal which, for much of the 20th century, was seen as the guarantor of Polish prosperity and energy security. Until the 1980s, Poland was one of the world’s top five producers. Even last year, it drew almost 70 per cent of its electricity from the fossil fuel, and mining unions still have considerable clout.

Yet even before the EU sharpened its 2030 reduction target from 50 per cent to 55 per cent last year, that structure of energy generation was looking untenable. Rising prices for EU carbon permits were putting huge pressure on Poland’s coal-hungry energy companies. And the increasing unwillingness of banks to lend to companies involved with the black fuel was starving them of capital. The EU’s new targets will only intensify the pressure to move away from coal to other sources of power generation.

Polish energy in numbers

Belchatow Power Station

70%

Of Poland’s electricity is generated from coal. It is projected to fall to 11% by 2040

Zl150bn

Sum Warsaw has earmarked for its new nuclear programme, with 130bn zlotys to be spent on offshore wind projects

33%

Forecast share of gas in the Polish energy mix by 2040, from about 10% in 2020 and 29% by 2030

“[Before the announcement of the EU’s latest climate plans] people were still posing some questions in the Polish context about the coal phaseout and when it is going to happen. Now there are no question marks,” says Joanna Flisowska, head of Greenpeace’s climate and energy unit in Poland. “For Poland, there is no way out other than to transition.”

To cope with this shift, the Polish government is planning a range of measures. It will split off the coal-fired assets from state-run energy companies, leaving them to focus on greener energy. It will spend 130bn zlotys (€28bn) on offshore wind projects. And it will plough 150bn zlotys into its new nuclear programme. Overall, the energy strategy envisages that coal’s share in Polish electricity generation will fall from almost 70 per cent last year to 37 per cent in 2030, and 11 per cent in 2040.

“[This strategy] . . . is completely shifting the energy landscape of a member state in just 20 years,” says Michal Kurtyka, Poland’s climate and environment minister. “In the next 20 years we will be building a new additional energy system comparable in its size to the existing one that works only on zero-emission sources: offshore, nuclear, photovoltaic, biogas, biomass, geothermal.”

Feasibility fears

By 2040, Poland’s new nuclear plants are projected to account for 16 per cent of Polish electricity production, playing a key role in guaranteeing the stability of the system. “Currently there is no technology that could replace conventional energy based on coal, apart from nuclear energy,” says Wojciech Dabrowski, chief executive of PGE, one of Poland’s biggest energy companies. “[Maintaining energy security without nuclear during the energy transition] is impossible in Poland.”

Kurtyka says the location for the first reactor will be chosen this year and the project’s financing model and technology next year. Officials have already held talks with US and French companies, with the US seen as favourites to be picked as Poland’s technology partner. Kurtyka insists it is “perfectly feasible” that Poland will hit its target of having its first plant online by 2033.

Analysts are not so sure, pointing to cost overruns and delays on other nuclear programmes around the EU. “Nobody in the world is able to build nuclear plants that fast. If we look at what is happening in other countries — and these are countries that already have experience with nuclear — they are not able to do this,” says Flisowska. “So I think that this timeline is completely detached from reality.”

“I would support trying to go for nuclear — but as an option that’s ‘nice to have’ for faster decarbonisation,” says Aleksander Sniegocki, an energy expert at WiseEuropa, a Warsaw think-tank. “But now it’s treated as a ‘must have’ for the 2030s. It’s a risky assumption. It’s a weakness of the policy.”

Anti-nuclear activists demonstrate in  Warsaw. Green activists say Poland should redouble its efforts to expand its renewables capacity
Green activists say Poland should redouble its efforts to expand its renewables capacity © Czarek Sokolowski/AP

The political context is also uncertain. The ruling coalition’s loss of one of its three parties last week has raised questions about its ability to see out its term. Opposition parties have mixed views on nuclear power. And since Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, public opinion has also been largely against the idea of reactors in Poland. Polls suggest the gap is slowly closing: a survey carried out by CBOS in June found 39 per cent in favour and 45 per cent against. But proponents of nuclear power say the government needs to do more to win over sceptics.

“At the moment the government isn’t doing anything to convince people about nuclear energy in those areas where it could locate a plant,” says Tomasz Nowak, from the opposition grouping, Civic Coalition. “If we pick a final location which hasn’t been prepared properly, then we won’t be able to build those blocks there in just 11 years.”

Michal Kurtyka, climate minister, says Poland’s strategy ‘is completely shifting the energy landscape of a member state in just 20 years’
Michal Kurtyka, climate minister, says Poland’s strategy ‘is completely shifting the energy landscape of a member state in just 20 years’ © Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Yet even if Poland does bring its nuclear programme online by 2033, the intervening years are likely to be tricky for the stability of the energy system. From 2025, the EU will tighten its rules around capacity market payments, which give energy groups an additional revenue stream alongside funds from power generation. Analysts say that without these, many Polish coal plants will be unviable, accelerating the exit from the fuel. Earlier this month, the climate and environment ministry conceded that there was a possibility of “significant and increasing shortages of the required surplus of power” after 2025.

Concerns about the stability of Poland’s energy system were thrown into sharp relief in May when a network failure switched off 10 of the 11 units at the vast coal-fired Belchatow plant in central Poland, which generates around 20 per cent of the country’s electricity. The disruption was felt across Europe and sent Poland scrambling for ways to make up the shortfall.

A wind farm near Puck, northern Poland. The country plans to spend €28bn on offshore wind projects
A wind farm near Puck, northern Poland. The country plans to spend €28bn on offshore wind projects © Kacper Pempel/Reuters

“When Belchatow happened, we had enormous problems stabilising the system. Of course, we called for additional electricity imports from the operators in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic. But the operator also asked old coal plants, for example in Wielkopolska, to produce more electricity,” says Robert Tomaszewski, an energy analyst at Polityka Insight, a Warsaw-based think-tank.

“So those old coal units were extremely important in those crucial few minutes and hours after the incident in Belchatow. And they saved us. So you can imagine that if this situation happened again in a few years [when we have less spare capacity], we would be in very big trouble.”

Green energy concerns

Some market participants argue it would therefore make sense to prolong the life of some of Poland’s coal plants during the transition. “We are not in a position to turn off significant capacity from coal plants, if we don’t replace it with other sources that would be flexible. So every coal plant that we turn off . . . without replacing it with something else, significantly increases the risk of blackouts,” says Sebastian Jablonski, chairman of Respect Energy, an energy trading company.

“And so I don’t know whether it wouldn’t be a better solution to extend the life of the coal plants at the cost of higher prices in the short term, and wait until storing green energy is cheaper.”

Green activists say this would be a mistake, and that Poland should redouble its efforts to expand its renewables capacity. However, the rightwing government has sent mixed messages. Not long after taking office in 2015, it introduced the so-called 10H rule that onshore wind turbines had to be at least 10 times their height away from the nearest residential building, effectively freezing the industry’s development.

Coal miners work underground in the Piniowek coal mine. Until the 1980s, Poland was one of the world’s top five producers
Coal miners work underground in the Piniowek coal mine. Until the 1980s, Poland was one of the world’s top five producers © Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg

The government is currently working on amending the rule but, although it is planning to ramp up offshore wind capacity sharply by 2030, its energy strategy envisages that onshore wind will have a lower share in Poland’s energy mix in 2040 than it did in 2020. “The government’s plan could be much more ambitious,” says Janusz Gajowiecki, chairman of the Polish Wind Energy Association.

Instead, according to the government’s energy strategy, a big chunk of the work to compensate for the retirement of coal power plants will be done by gas. Poland has built an LNG terminal in the Baltic port of Swinoujscie to allow it to access supplies from countries such as the US. And it is building a pipeline under the Baltic which will give it access to Norway’s gasfields. Fuelled by such investments, the share of gas in the Polish energy mix is set to rise from around 10 per cent in 2020 to 29 per cent by 2030. By 2040, it is forecast to account for 33 per cent. Analysts say that if Poland’s nuclear project is delayed, it will have to be higher still.

LNG tanker Oak Spirit, operated by Teekay Corp, sits docked with Poland’s first import of US LNG at the Gazoport terminal, operated by Polskie LNG SA, in Swinoujscie in 2019
LNG tanker Oak Spirit, operated by Teekay Corp, sits docked with Poland’s first import of US LNG at the Gazoport terminal, operated by Polskie LNG SA, in Swinoujscie in 2019 © Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg

That strategy, however, is not without risks, particularly in terms of energy security. “If we keep on increasing our gas consumption rapidly, then we will once again face the risk that we won’t be able to ensure that we have the security of supply,” says Sniegocki. “If Russia cuts gas supplies, we won’t be as safe as we would be if we had moderated the growth in gas demand.”

Others point to soaring gas prices, and warn that boosting Poland’s reliance on the fuel will simply mean that in a few years’ time, it will find itself in a similar position to its current situation with coal: battling to wean itself of an energy source which has become uneconomic.

Members of the Brandenburg Green Youth and Polish Green MPs protest on the German-Polish border river Oder against Poland’s plans for a new nuclear power plant
Members of the Brandenburg Green Youth and Polish Green MPs protest on the German-Polish border river Oder against Poland’s plans for a new nuclear power plant © Patrick Pleul/picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild

Tomaszewski, however, says that in the short term there is “no other option” than gas to replace coal plants as they go offline.

“Even if we decide on nuclear and build it as fast as we can, it will be ready only in the second half of the next decade, so we have to survive somehow these most sensitive years for our energy supply system, which will be those after 2025, without nuclear, just with gas, renewables and the remaining coal plants that will still be on line,” he says.

“I think that it is going to be tough, especially in a situation where gas prices are skyrocketing . . . We have to be ready for the era of high electricity prices.”

Additional reporting by Agata Majos

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