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Power supply disruptions, high electricity prices. Even the nuclear will not be enough for Poland

Power supply disruptions, high electricity prices. Even the nuclear will not be enough for Poland Frédéric Paulussen/unsplash.com

The future of the Polish energy sector looks bleak. Our infrastructure is ageing, we need to find an immediate alternative to carbon-intensive coal, and the power generation gap is growing. Is energy transition possible under these conditions? Will nuclear projects be a recipe for improving the state of our power industry? Maria Sobuniewska asks Wojciech Jakóbik, editor-in-chief of the BiznesAlert portal, and Jakub Wiech, deputy editor-in-chief of the Energetyka24 website, about these matters.

Will Poland be climate neutral in 2050?

Jakub Wiech: No, it won’t. We are not sure that even the European Union will be. This is a huge challenge requiring dynamic organisational, political and economic change. In less than 20 years, we would have to abandon the generation of electricity and heat from fossil fuels and provide a new fuel to a significant part of industry, not to mention the challenges in the transport and land sectors. A huge amount of money will have to be spent in order to deal with challenges that we have completely failed to deal with so far. This is also a technological problem – will we find a cheap replacement for carbon-intensive energy sources? The metals and steel industry will have to use coking coal for a long time to come because there is simply no other attractive substitute at present.

It will be more difficult for Poland than for the rest of the European Union. Prime Minister Morawiecki, speaking of needing a „Polish path” to climate neutrality, is not saying this because we want to extend coal mining in our country, but because we are unable to meet this European deadline.

Wojciech Jakóbik: Everything depends on the pace of innovation. The development of new (zero- or low-carbon) technologies is advancing all the time. The cost of renewable energy is already so affordable that Poles – if they have budgetary stability – can afford photovoltaic panels. The costs of these technologies have dropped, so they are cost-effective and accessible. If this process is repeated in other technologies – for example in the hydrogen economy or the energy storage sector – it will be possible to achieve climate neutrality at an increasingly low cost, and new technologies will repeat the success of RES made possible by subsidies that are now starting to pay off.

If RES, hydrogen and energy storage together create a new electricity system, the existing one will lose customers one day. In such a case, our system will have to be „reprogrammed” again in a decade’s time. Why should we pay twice? We need to take into account change and not fall into the trap of lagging behind, as in the renewables sector. It is worth learning from our own mistakes. I myself defended coal in 2013 when the success of RES was less evident. Now I see a similar trend in sectors like hydrogen and energy storage.

In the strategy Energy Policy of Poland until 2040 there is a specific date – 2033 – when the first nuclear reactor is to be built. Where did this nuclear acceleration in government policy come from?

J.W.: About 2 years ago it became apparent that the European Union, in line with the path set out long ago, started talking openly about reaching climate neutrality within three decades and made it clear that this was not a passing fad but something that would shape us for decades to come.

That is why we have started to discuss widely the need for energy transition, which was clearly evident during the last election campaigns – each party and candidate had its own vision of how to develop the energy sector. This indicates that these topics have attracted the interest of Poles. But we have been talking about nuclear power for over 50 years now. The difference is that we are speaking more clearly now because the spectre of rapid transformation hangs over us. We need to create a parallel low-carbon sector, and here the role of nuclear power can be crucial: our ability to achieve climate neutrality may depend on it; the nuclear is to become the basis for the development of renewables; and strengthening relations with the United States or France may depend on it. Central Europe is slowly becoming a nuclear hub. And that is very good for us because we have the opportunity to benefit from the support of our neighbours.

W.J.: Let us take a step back to the Ostrołęka C project. This was to be our last coalfired power unit, which would save us from a generation gap. In the end, the project was abandoned because we concluded that we were going into gas so as not to pay for subsidising coal, and we wanted to decarbonise faster. However, first coal and then gas will go into the „dying room” funded from our taxes to prevent power shortages in the future.

The problem is that the new gas unit at the Ostrołęka C Power Plant will start operating in 2026 or even later due to the timetable for construction and connection to the gas grid. Meanwhile, the generation gap is widening. According to the Polish Energy Regulatory Office (ERO), it will reach 4.6 GW by 2034. In other words, according to the ERO, we will not build enough new power plants, and thus our dependence on energy imports will increase. Moreover, the fact that the new power plants that we manage to build will be gas-fired will increase our dependence on gas imports. This will make us dependent on energy supplies from our neighbours, such as Germany.

This problem will not be solved even if we decide on a nuclear power plant today and build it in 2033. Nuclear power will only reach 1 to 1.5 GW of capacity in the third decade, rising to 6-9 GW in 2043. We will not close the generation gap before then, so we are already condemned to systemic dependence on energy imports – it is 10% now and could be as much as 30% by the end of the decade.

A stable zero-carbon policy will certainly make it easier for us to talk about climate policy at the EU level. It is much more difficult for us to negotiate on climate issues because we have a large coal base. The Hungarians, Slovaks and Czechs, who have post-Soviet nuclear power, are in a different situation.

What if the generation gap becomes so large that we will not be able to meet our own energy needs? Where can we compensate for this deficiency?

J.W.: According to Poland’s energy policy until 2030, we were supposed to have nuclear power in the 2020s, but the document was already outdated at the time it was adopted. We already knew then that it was impossible to build a nuclear power plant in 10 years. Therefore, we have a serious problem with the generation gap, the extent of which we are not fully aware of. We continue to rely on solutions that only exist on paper. This is well illustrated by the example of the Turów mine.

When the CJEU ordered the closure of the lignite mine, we were instructed to compensate for energy shortages from the grid. We could do it in theory, but in practice, it poses a huge threat to energy security, because all it takes is for one large generating unit to accidentally drop out of the system, and we will be dependent on energy imports from our neighbours. The same applies to the generation gap – on paper, we can compensate for it from the grid, but practically we face a number of problems. What is more, at certain times of the year, our neighbours may not want to share energy – because they themselves may not have enough. After all, Germany is shutting down its stable coal and nuclear power capacity.

I fear that the decade of the 2020s will be a decade of „Flex alerts” – the supply of energy will be restricted in order to protect us from blackouts. This will also impact the prices of electricity, which will be highest during times of shortage.

W.J.: Paradoxically, the phenomena we are discussing may accelerate the transformation. In general, the fact that the generation gap exists will not pose a threat of a blackout, but it will make people independent of the national energy system. We are already seeing a growing trend of large energy consumers „unplugging” from the electricity grid, or using their own generation sources. The state cannot plan or design everything.

It is likely that the observed trend of a surge in the supply of new renewable capacity will accelerate further. In the energy strategy, we are talking about 5-7 gigawatts from photovoltaic sources by 2030. It is already clear that the estimates are too low. The same applies to wind energy – if the law is liberalised, we can expect an increase in the supply of electricity from this source regardless of government policy.

Dependence on imports is a problem, but the Turów case has shown us that after all, we are not in danger of a blackout. PSE, our power transmission system operator, has stated that there is no risk associated with the possible closure of this mine.

So what should be the Polish energy strategy now? Because, as I understand it, the existing plans are out of date, and in 2033 nuclear power won’t get the job done, will it?

J.W.: No, it won’t because that is not its role. The nuclear is just to create the foundation on which we will continue to build. It is a big mistake to view nuclear power in contraposition to renewable energy sources – nuclear power will not solve the problem, because it is not a flawless alternative. This technology takes time to build but is nonetheless essential to the energy transition.

We cannot afford the luxury of choosing which technologies to use in order to decarbonise – we must use all the options that are on the table. It is already too late, and this is not about climate considerations but economic considerations and energy security. The choice between RES and nuclear power may be an emotionally stimulating topic for debate, but we already have to make binding, concrete decisions. Every month of delay will cost us dearly.

W.J.: But all that has already happened – the generation gap is already a fact, energy prices will be the highest in Europe, and whatever we say – it is already too late. The call for swift decisions is secondary because they have not been taken for a long time, and the consequences will be upon us even if we build a nuclear power plant in 2033. Let us hope it is built, but the challenges will arise before it is completed.

In theory, there are two to choose from. The first one: do not invest in new technologies and wait until someone invests in them for us and, if they are cheap, we become the recipients of these innovations. Or to try and see in five years whether they will develop in our country and whether we will be able to make, for example, a green hydrogen hub in Pomerania. Hydrogen or energy storage is a great opportunity to use EU funds for the benefit of the Polish energy sector, for example, to transform the gas sector so that it does not share the fate of coal.

Polish version is available here.

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