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Resisting renewables

Rosalia Romaniec / cmk
April 29, 2014

With its focus on nuclear, natural gas and coal, Poland continues to rely on traditional, yet controversial energy sources in an effort to reduce its reliance on Russia. For now, renewable energy remains on the margins.

View of the Belchatow power plant (Photo: Darek Redos/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Darek Redos/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to its energy supply, Poland's motto seems to be "better safe than sorry." At the very latest when German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to build the Nord Stream pipelinein the Baltic Sea in 2005, Poland stopped looking to its neighbors and decided to fashion its own energy plans.

The Polish government has even used the recent crisis in Crimea as an opportunity to criticize Germany for its dependence on Russian gas. On the occasion of Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Warsaw in March, Prime Minster Donald Tusk said the pipeline meant that "Europe's energy security depended on the Russian pipelines."

Poland's energy relationship with Russia is a regular topic in EU negotiations, especially when it comes to Warsaw's efforts to protect the Polish coal industry. The country has drawn repeated criticism for its support of the sector, especially from Germany.

Yet German politician Günter Verheugen, former EU commissioner for enterprise and industry, does not believe the criticism is fully justified. "Poland has increasing energy demands, and the EU needs to take that into account," he said. "The Germans should not only think about their own views, but realize that it's in Poland's best interest."

Donald Tusk speaks at the 2013 Climate Conference in Warsaw
Tusk has criticized Europe for its overreliance on Russian gas suppliesImage: Reuters

Looking for alternatives

Nearly 90 percent of Poland's electricity still comes from coal. But alternatives must be found; supplies are finite and extraction is becoming increasingly expensive. In addition, the country needs to reduce its CO2 emissions. To that end, there are a number of projects in the works.

Over the next five years, Poland plans to invest the equivalent of 7 billion euros ($9.7 billion) in clean coal technology, and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal is expected to go online in the Baltic port city of Swinoujscie in 2015.

Seen as Poland's most important strategic energy project, the 750-million-euro investment is set to become a major hub for gas supplies from around the world. To accommodate the imports, 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) of new gas pipelines will stretch across the country.

"This is important, not only for Poland but also for the Baltic states," said Karl-Georg Wellmann, a German member of parliament. "It's unacceptable for the Baltic region to still be 100 percent dependent on Russian gas. With a denser network, these countries could also import gas from the West."

Controversial sources

For its part, Poland is promoting diversification with a mix of several energy sources. The country has currently set its hopes on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process mainly used in the US to extract natural gas. With fracking, holes are drilled deep into the earth, to a depth of a few hundred to a few thousand meters, and chemical-laden water is pumped into the ground at a high pressure. Ideally, this process then releases the gas, which is then extracted.

Fracking test site in Poland
Poland is planning to expand its fracking business, as seen here in a test Drilling site in KsiezomierzImage: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

Fracking is controversial in Europe, and the method has been banned in France. Poland, however, intends to fully exploit this technology. The fracking lobby in Warsaw has many supporters, though the legal framework that would regulate the process has yet to be developed.

The future of another controversial energy project is also uncertain. The Tusk government intends to build Poland's first two nuclear power plants, despite the considerable expense. Construction costs are estimated to be in the double-digit billions, but Tusk has so far stuck to his plan.

"The government still doesn't know who is going to pay for it," said Andrzej Ancygier, an energy expert with the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, pointing out that more and more parties have distanced themselves from the project. The proposed location has been shifted repeatedly, as has the construction schedule.

Karl-Georg Wellmann
Wellmann: Young engineers should "look to the future"Image: dapd

Learning from the mistakes of others

Despite these setbacks, Warsaw is not considering a shift to renewable energy. On the contrary: Tusk recently warned that the sector was receiving far too much support and was, in his opinion, slowing the economy.

No more than 15 percent of the country's energy comes from renewable sources. According to Ancygier, the Polish government prefers to support big corporations rather than give opportunities to smaller energy concerns or communities.

German offers to cooperate in renewable energy projects in Poland have, for the most part, been rebuffed, which experts believe is a mistake. They say that although the initial costs may be expensive, they represent an investment in the future, in terms of jobs and other benefits, and Poland needs to recognize the opportunities for the industrial sector.

Dr. Andrzej Ancygier
Ancygier: "The government still doesn't know who will pay for nuclear"Image: Andrzej Ancygier

Ancygier gives the example of the United Kingdom which, despite being one of the world's windiest countries, has failed to establish its own wind farm industry. The sector still imports parts from abroad today, allowing "the Germans and the Chinese to make a fortune," he said.

Wellmann also believes Poland could miss the boat when it comes to these new technologies. "If I were a young engineer, I would look to the future and focus on areas like electromobility and energy storage," he said. "These industries are intrinsically linked with renewable energy."