Country report: Poland

Materials World magazine
1 Oct 2017

Poland’s recent focus on renewable energy and efficiency might be too light a gesture for a nation so reliant on coal. Ledetta Asfa-Wossen takes a look at its energy mix.

A coal-free Europe may be widely envisioned for 2020, but Poland is likely to be an exception to the rule with 81% of its electricity still being generated from state-owned coal mines. Hard coal made up 60% of the coal used for electricity generation in 2015, with the remaining 40% being lignite, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Coal country

Poland has the highest share of coal in electricity generation of all the IEA countries and the second-largest share of fossil fuels in electricity generation, after Australia. Despite a recent growth in renewables, Poland still has the sixth-lowest share of renewables in electricity generation among IEA member countries.

In July, energy minister Grzegorz Tobiszowski announced that in 2030, 60% of its energy would still come from bituminous coal and lignite. 

The country has historically been a net exporter of electricity, but increased imports, mainly from Germany, resulted in Poland becoming a net importer in 2014. The industry and commercial sectors are the largest electricity consumers in the country, each accounting for over one-third of total consumption.

Nevertheless, its share of coal power has declined from 92% in 2005 to 81% in 2015. The electricity generated from coal has dropped by 7% in ten years, from 143 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2005 to 133 TWh in 2015. This decline has been compensated by a rapid increase in renewable electricity generation, which contributed to 14% of total generation in 2015, compared to only 3% in 2005. 

A question of policy

Over the last six years, Poland has made progress in the development and implementation of its energy policy, with a focus on security and improved efficiency. The government has revised its strategy to integrate factors set out by the EU’s climate and energy policy. Energy now features high up on the government’s agenda, and it has established a new Ministry of Energy to ensure its policy developments will be carried out.

While market liberalisation, declining international energy prices, decarbonisation and rapid technological changes drive the transformation of electricity sectors across many IEA countries, Poland has so far been reluctant to completely transform its energy system and has continued to hold up fossil fuels as a fundamental element of its energy mix. Earlier this year, energy firms from every single EU country, apart from Poland and Greece, signed an agreement to refrain from opening any new coal mines after 2020
as part of the Paris Agreement. 

However, a historical reliance on fossil fuels has started to present challenges that Poland has been forced to face up to, which is driving its mission to find alternative sources and reduce emissions. 

In the power sector, many coal-fired power plants are old, inefficient and polluting – 62% of coal infrastructure is over 30 years old and 13% is between 26 and 30 years old. The replacement of these plants represents an economic challenge for the sector – even for the bloc’s 7th largest economy. 

State of the art power plants can reduce CO₂ emissions by over 20%, while air pollutant emissions can be reduced by 90% or higher. Progress has been made in this regard, and hard coal plants under construction offer much higher efficiencies. Working with new technologies and modern pollutant abatement equipment will help reduce local air pollution. 

Furthermore, Poland's outdated coal-fuelled power stations face the risk of power shortages when temperatures reach extreme levels as increased demand overloads the system. Last year, it had to impose curbs on power consumption due to outages and a heatwave that drained rivers that supply water to cool down its coal power plants.

Poland’s energy security is also further complicated by its reliance on Russia for over two thirds of its gas supply, which is why its government has recently tried to diversify suppliers.

For example, in April this year, Bloomberg reported that Poland’s state-owned oil and gas firm PGNiG SA bought spot liquefied natural gas cargo from US firm Cheniere Energy Inc. In 2016, it also received a delivery from Norway’s Statoil, in a continued move to reduce its dependence on Russian energy giant Gazprom. 

Alternative energy sources 

Poland has achieved significant progress in the deployment of renewable energy sources in recent years. The share of renewables in total primary energy supply (TPES) doubled from 5% in 2005 to 10% in 2015, slightly above the average for IEA countries. Biofuels and waste provide the main alternate energy in terms of TPES and total final consumption in Poland. Recent growth has, however, been strongest in wind power, which became the largest renewable energy source in electricity production with 6.6% of total generation in 2015.

Historically, renewable power generation was dominated by hydro power until electricity production from biofuels and waste grew and became the largest source in 2007. Biofuels and waste continued to grow until 2012 and has since been stable at around 10TWh per year, representing around 6% of total electricity generation, largely for co-firing.

The other shift in renewable power production has been due to Poland's acceleration on wind power, which increased by 550% from 2010 to 2015, albeit from only 300 megawatts (MW) in 2010, reaching 11TWh or 7% of total electricity generation.

The government has attempted to meet its own renewable energy targets, decarbonising its transport system and introducing nuclear power. Even so, GHG emissions per gross domestic product (GDP) and carbon intensity in Poland are among the highest in IEA Europe member countries. 

While Poland has been relatively successful in reducing GHG emissions, the country faces more challenging emissions reduction targets in the future, with its transport sector being the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in the country.