Farewell to Poland’s coal

 By Nicholas Newman

Thanks to coal, Poland has the second most polluted air after Bulgaria and more than 44,000 premature deaths a year have been attributed to smog in Gdansk, Krakow and Warsaw. In coming decades, the challenge for Poland will be to reduce coal’s share in electricity generation from around 80% to zero by 2040.

A combination of factors, among them energy security concerns, economics and the power of the coal mining unions, have ensured government support for coal. For decades, burning hard and lignite coal has been a cornerstone of Poland’s policy of self-sufficiency in the electricity generation. Coal had the merit of minimizing exposure to Russia’s Gazprom and the interruption of gas supplies to central and Eastern Europe in 2008, 2009 and 2014. Poland is the European Union’s largest coal producer, and its mining directly employs around 100,000 people.

Miners leaving the Knurow mine after a night shift at Knurow in the southern Polish mining region (

Energy transition in Poland

The 2015 election showed the first signs of waning support for coal usage. Grassroots environmental activism and an anti-smog campaign have gained traction. For example, the Global Climate Strike of 21st September was attended by tens of thousands of young Poles in around 60 towns and cities. Political opposition to coal is now becoming mainstream. Initially, opposition was confined to small political parties like Zieloni (Greens), Razem (Together) and more recently the newcomer centre-left party Wiosna (Spring). But now, Leader of the Civic Platform, Grzegorz Schetyna, the main opposition party in the Polish parliament, has put forward ambitious targets for ending the use of coal in home heating by 2030, in district heating by 2035 and, finally, in electricity generation in 2040. Not to be outdone, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has announced plans to cut the usage of coal to just 60% by 2030 and zero by 2040. Until now, support for the coal industry won elections. Now, after the Paris Accord, rising public climate anxiety and EU decarbonisation has made the support of coal less of a vote winner. Consequently, new investment in domestic coal mining capacity has slowed. At the same time, rising coal consumption by Poland’s industrial sector has led to increasing imports from 8.3 million tonnes in 2016 to 19.68 million tonnes in 2018, which ironically benefitted Russia to the tune of 13.47 million tonnes! As an EU member, Poland’s National Energy Policy follows the direction of EU energy and climate objectives and is consistent with the Paris Accord commitments to reduce CO2 emissions.

Young Poles have also joined the Global Climate Strike (Marcin Obara, PAP)

What are the options?

Poland’s future economic development depends on increasing electricity capacity from 40 GW today to 73 GW by 2040, during which time coal-use is set to end. How is the increase in power production to be achieved? Diversification of energy sources, improvements in energy efficiency, energy storage, modernising the grid and demand management all play a role. Poland is considering building cleaner coal plants, increasing gas imports to feed new gas plants and commissioning nuclear power. The expansion of renewable energy, particularly wind power, will be most striking. Euroactive suggests that the share of coal in electricity production will fall to 60% by 2030 whilst renewables will reach 27%, rising to around 33% by 2040 or 30 GW.

Gas cleaner than coal

Poland consumes around 17 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas a year (about a quarter of German consumption), making it the seventh-largest market in the EU. Thanks to new investment, the share of natural gas in power generation rose from 6% in 2017 to 8% today and is expected to rise to 13% by 2040, facilitated by the soon-to-be completed direct import pipeline linked to North Sea gas fields and the Ministry of Energy’s plan to build 2 GW of gas power capacity.

Renewable energy

Poland’s offshore wind industry is set to grow and make a significant contribution to reaching the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive of 2018, which specifies that at least 32% of the EU’s energy consumption will be provided by renewable sources by 2030. Already, Polish energy investor, PKN Orlen, plans for 1 GW of wind power in the Baltic Sea, whilst local utility PGE expects to have 3.5 GW by 2030. Polish sources have put the Baltic Sea wind farm potential at 10 GW by 2040.

Gdansk shipyard prepares to build pipelines for offshore wind turbines (Piotr Malecki, Bloomberg)

According to the Rynek fotowoltaiki w Polsce 2018 reportinstalled PV capacity could expand to 1.2 GW by 2021, especially now that renewable technology prices have fallen to such a degree that they could prove cheaper than coal, nuclear or gas. Indeed, Poland’s research institute IEO argues that current energy policies have increased power prices and forecasts that replacing coal with renewables would help reduce power prices by between 1.5% and 2% in the long-term.

Nuclear-zero emissions

Poland plans to have its first 1.5 GW nuclear power plant up and running by 2033 and envisages six reactors with a combined total of 9 GW by 2043. This is an ambitious policy, given the high capital costs and technical problems experienced with new nuclear plants in Britain, France and Finland. Moreover, any delay combined with ending lignite could threaten Poland’s energy security. Poland, with twice the dependence on coal as richer Germany, will find it extremely hard and costly to abandon coal. In practice, Forum Energii predicts that coal’s share in Poland’s energy mix could still be 22% by 2040. Nevertheless, the transition toward decarbonisation is underway and rests on natural gas and renewable energy paired with gas-peaking plants.

READ MORE: The end of coal, the rise of natural gas by Luca Longo

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.