Coal has been both a boon to Poland and a bane on the country.
Coal has been both a boon to Poland and a bane on the country. Coal has helped fuel Poland’s economy and heat local homes in winter, but that has come at grave environmental costs to the Central European nation.
Nor does it seem that Poland is going to quit its addiction to coal any time soon. Even as many other EU member states are moving away from fossil fuels in favor of cleaner and greener alternatives like wind and nuclear energy, Poland is sticking to coal.
The country’s ruling Law and Justice Party wants to open yet more coal mines to help feed the country’s coal-fired plants. The burning of coal accounts for nearly 80% of energy generation in the country and is projected to make up around 50% of its energy mix by 2050. This is despite the European Union’s push for its member states to achieve zero carbon emissions by that very same date.
In response, ClientEarth Foundation, an environmentalist group, has decided to sue the operator of the massive Belchatow power plant in a bid to force the plant, which is Europe’s single biggest emitter of CO2, to phase out its use of coal by 2035 at the latest.
Whether that plan will work remains to be seen. The country’s coal industry remains a dominant force in the economy. There are three new coal-fired power plants in development and so are several new coal mines. Coal mining has been a lucrative activity not only for businesses but also for miners who receive wages well above the national average. Yet despite the high levels of domestic coal production, Poland still needs to import yet more coal to meet soaring domestic demand. In 2017 alone the country mined nearly 60 million tons of coal and had to import another 10 million tons or so, largely from neighboring Russia.
Coal retains a pivotal position in the nation’s collective psyche as well. “Coal takes a special place not only in Poland’s energy mix but also in the nation’s collective heart,” Forbes magazine explains. “The coal industry has been traditionally revered, if not romanticized, and much of this continues today. As reported by Poland’s Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) in 2016, miners in Poland are respected at levels (82%) comparable to university professors (80%) and more than medical doctors (74%) or teachers (71%).”
Such high regard for coal, however, has been disastrous environmentally. Thirty-three of the 50 cities within the European Union with the consistently worst levels of air pollution are in Poland.
Across much of the country persistently bad air has led to a national emergency with millions of people suffering from the ill effects of air pollution, especially in winter when a baleful miasma ends up hanging in the air for weeks and months in many a Polish village, town and city.
Not all is gloom and doom, however. Poland is planning to invest heavily in wind energy by constructing new wind farms in its windswept Baltic region. “We have to change and be really responsive to mega-trends and also to keep power prices on reasonable levels,” Joanna Mackowiak-Pandera, who heads the pro-wind energy think tank Forum Energii in Warsaw, told the Bloomberg news agency. “What we see now in the power sector is that finally we have to meet some targets.”
On the downside, supporters of wind energy are up against the powerful coal industry lobby, which has ardent supporters in Poland’s conservative government. Yet the rising price of coal and the falling price of wind energy are having an impact on local decision makers, many of whom are reconsidering their stance on coal.
“Poland has characterized its reliance on coal as a necessity in order to ensure energy independence,” Katherine Poseidon, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, has noted. “But since domestic coal production is on a long-term downward trajectory, the resulting increasing reliance on imported coal negates the energy independence argument, really.”
In addition to planning to expand the role of wind energy in its domestic power mix, Poland is also turning to nuclear energy as another alternative to coal. The country is on course to open its first nuclear power plant in a decade. More power plants will follow soon afterwards. “We would like to build three (nuclear power plant) units in five-year intervals, with the first one coming in 2029 [at a cost of around €6 billion],” the country’s Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski said.
Nuclear power can be a far cleaner alternative to coal, especially as a complement to renewables. Encouragingly, more and more Polish politicians and industry players are coming to realize that the country’s dependence on coal is unsustainable. According to a much noted MIT study, if deep carbonization of any economy is to be achieved, nuclear power is indispensable. “The conclusion of the study is that excluding nuclear energy drives up the average cost of electricity when one projects any low carbon scenario in the future”, says David Petti, co-author of the paper. “You need to have nuclear in the mix as you decarbonize, because (a) it will be extremely difficult to do without, and (b) it would be incredibly expensive without it. If in fact we can reduce the cost, the market will expand.”
Magnus Hall, president and CEO of Vattenfall, Sweden’s state-owned power company, concurs. “We must include nuclear” in future energy packages in countries like Poland, stresses Hall, who has just been elected president of Eurelectric, a European industry association for the electricity sector that represents more than 3,500 companies in over 30 European countries. “If we take nuclear away, there is no solution.”