Energy Environment 1 June, 2017 9:00 am   
Editorial staff

Poland can offer an alternative to total decarbonization (INTERVIEW)

We are talking to professor Jerzy Buzek on how to change the Polish energy sector in accordance with EU policy and the needs of the Polish economy. Professor Buzek is Poland’s former prime minister and president of the European Parliament, presently he is chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy. The future of the Polish economy is at stake. On the one hand, we are talking about inevitable changes, on the other on slowing them down. However, it seems that both parties want negotiated solutions. How to achieve a compromise that will spare the Polish economy, which is so dependent on coal?

Jerzy Buzek: Some of the proposals put forward by the European Commission are impossible to agree with, for instance the CO2 limit (550g/kWh), which is too low for any coal fired power plant. This is an unfounded proposal that goes against the treaty principle, which allows all Member States to determine their energy mix in the EU. In turn, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme directive has been modified as part of the climate package. The Committee on Industry, Research and Energy managed to work out a sustainable approach, which is based on, among others, free allowances for industry, and support for modernizing our coal-based energy sector. This will prevent a carbon leakage -discourage industry from escaping Europe and protect jobs. Such a leakage would only increase global emissions. The Modernization Fund, the European Union Solidarity Fund as well as the European Just Transition Fund are all important for us. They support states that have not yet completed their energy transition. Unfortunately, during voting some solutions went in the wrong direction. Today negotiations with the Council will show whether solutions, which are negative for Poland and the EU economy will be stopped.

Poland did not manage to create a blocking coalition in the Council when it comes to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

That is true. In the past it was possible thanks to the support from Romania, Germany, the Czech Republic and Spain, whose economies are also based on coal. However, I am sure that we will work out a compromise because I cannot imagine that propositions, which introduce such divisions among member states could be adopted. It is worth mentioning another issue, western states, such as Belgium, France and Great Britain, started to limit their coal dependence in the 70s and 80s. This was caused by a number of reasons, such as the dangerousness behind working underground, fragility of mine surfaces, collapsing of towns and serious health issues. Back then there were no climate protection regulations, which started to appear in the public debate in the late 90s. Therefore, the energy industry advantages the western states are enjoying today, result from decisions made at a time when such solutions were unthinkable for the Polish government. This means we are way behind, and so we are expecting understanding. However, this is also a task for us, as we need to gradually and thoughtfully depart from coal independently of the solutions in the climate package because in the end, it pays off.

How much time are we giving ourselves?

Giving up on coal will take a long time, but the process has already begun and it is beneficial for our health – it is illegal to burn coal for heating purposes in large Polish cities. We are also investing in modern coal-fueled power plants. For years I have been talking about coal gasification. This would enable the Polish chemical industry to become independent of gas imports, and 5 million tons of coal annually could be used in an environmentally friendly way. However, this requires government support.

Is this process technologically feasible?

We are using research results and technologies designed in the Clean Coal Technology Center in Silesia and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology in Kraków.

How should we create a constructive alternative to EU’s rapid decarbonization plan?

Poland is doing a lot in this regard. We have significantly increased the efficiency of thermal power plants in residential buildings, we are building new power plant units with efficiency levels at 50%, and we are planning to construct new ones. Coal gasification should be on our list as well. We should also use the possibilities offered by the new assistance scheme for coal regions whose establishment was announced at the recent European Economic Congress in Katowice by Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Energy Union. Additionally, we have to make a decision on building a nuclear power plant . If we decide not to construct it, we should immediately invest all the money in a full-blown reorganization of the power generation sector and, even more importantly, in prosumer distributed generation. It is important to make sure that the money the Polish budget is earning from selling trade emission allowances, is used to modernize and improve efficiency of our energy sector and industry.

Is there a role for gas in your opinion?

Of course there is, this is why all actions taken to diversify its supply are important. The Northern Gate is undoubtedly such a project. We pursued this back in 2001 when my government negotiated the necessary contracts with Denmark and Norway. It is a pity that our successors terminated them. When it comes to new gas supplies, LNG has definitely a huge potential. I am happy that at the beginning of June the first tanker with US LNG in history will reach Poland. It is my personal satisfaction that two years of my, sometimes difficult, talks in Brussels and Washington with representatives of the American administration, Congress and business did not go to waste.

The reluctance to make concessions regarding coal is often explained by the differences in the economies of various states. Is a certain kind of isolationism in case of the energy sector a problem in our part of Europe?

I would not cal it isolationism. When it comes to the security of gas supplies, we were eager to cooperate, we proposed concrete solutions and that produced measurable effects. Almost a month ago we have concluded the works on this regulation. I led them as a representative of the European Parliament. We agreed on the rules of obligatory regional cooperation between states when it comes to risk assessment of gas supply stoppages and preparation of preventative and emergency plans. We introduced a legally binding solidarity mechanism, which guarantees that households, hospitals and heat networks connected to them will never experience gas shortages. We also managed to convince member states to agree to regulations that increase transparency of gas contracts, including infrastructural agreements, such as Nord Stream 2. To a large degree all of these were also proposed by Poland!

However, we find it harder when it comes to electricity.

We are behind with regard to the transformation, which is why we resist. However, we cannot treat solidarity selectively – we are expecting support, but we have to show flexibility, especially if the most disadvantageous regulations are eliminated.

However, we have reservations when it comes to the EC’s ambivalent assessment of Nord Stream 2 and the OPAL gas pipeline usage. The Parliament is unequivocally against NS2 and the monopolistic usage of the OPAL pipeline. There are also concerns about the antitrust investigation against Gazprom. However, we should stress that the discussion on energy and climate solutions has not finished yet, and I am hoping for more mutual understanding, because our common and ultimate goal is safe energy and clean air in Europe.