Despite the fact that the price of investment in onshore wind power is dropping massively as its efficiency surges, turbines are still unwanted in Poland. If it weren’t effectively blocked by unfavourable legal regulations, wind energy would create a chance to increase the importance of renewable energy sources. What is the reason for wind power’s bad image in Poland and who is suffering most as a result? Agata Skrzypczyk reports.
At the end of 2019, the total installed capacity of onshore wind farms in Poland was 5.9 GW. As a result of auctions held at the end of last year alone, about 2.2 GW of new wind power was contracted. The lowest auction price was PLN 162.8 per MWh (1PLN ≈ 0,25 USD on 02/06/2020), which is a continuation of a long-term downward trend in the cost of this technology. At the same time, energy from wind turbines proved to be half as cheap as energy from coal. Taking into account the variable costs of energy production and the cost of CO2 emissions, the price of electricity from new coal-fired power plants can reach as much as PLN 350 per MWh.
Despite the increase in production and price efficiency of onshore wind turbines, they have been effectively hampered by legal regulations for several years now. In 2016, the so-called Distance Act was adopted in Poland. The law stipulates that wind turbines with a capacity of more than 40 kW can only be built at a distance of at least 10 times their height (including the rotor with the blades) from residential and mixed-use buildings, as well as areas of high environmental value. This rules out the construction of modern wind turbines which, due to their size, would require a radius of about 2 km from any residential buildings, which is practically impossible in Poland. According to experts from the industry, the regulation makes it impossible to build new wind farms on 99 percent of the country’s territory.
The Distance Act does not apply to the investments which obtained the necessary permits before the new law came into effect. The total onshore wind power capacity contracted in auctions in 2018 was 1.1 GW, while in 2019 it was 2.2 GW. It is expected that there are still projects in the works with a capacity of 800 MW that have building permits issued before the Distance Law came into force. If all these projects with building permits were to be implemented, a total onshore wind power capacity of about 10 GW could be reached.
This calculation is in line with the National Energy and Climate Plan for 2021-2030, which assumes that onshore wind capacity will increase to about 9.6 GW in 2030 and will remain at this level until 2040, with no plan to build more onshore wind farms. According to the document, the reason for containing the growth of wind power is the lack of acceptance from local communities and the instability of energy production.
“Resistance to wind turbines is just a fabrication. Residents are ready for energy transformation.”, says Jarosław Koźlarek, editor of the Transformation of Eastern Wielkopolska blog. “We have a lot of wastelands from coal mines, including heaps, where wind farms could be built. Unfortunately, the 10H rule excludes the use of most of these areas.”
The region of Eastern Wielkopolska is one of the biggest areas in need of new investment in green energy. The residents and local authorities of this mining area are ready for energy transformation, and wind energy could play a major role here. “Withdrawing the Distance Act would bring back the wind farms with a bang. If this does not happen, it would be unrealistic to project the development of this sector”, Koźlarek adds.
“Onshore wind turbine technology has become so cost-effective that it no longer requires any state support but just a guarantee of stable income that allows to obtain long-term external financing.”, says Marcin Ścigan, who deals with RES at Forum Energii. There are also more and more ways to balance the wind energy produced, for instance by means of demand-side management, energy exchange with neighbouring countries, or local balancing. “The development of onshore wind power has been suppressed and probably nothing will change unless the government withdraws from the 10H rule.”, Ścigan adds.
A similar situation could be observed at the end of last year in Germany, a country which for a long time held a leading position in wind energy development. During the first nine months of 2019, investors in Germany installed 150 new turbines with a total capacity of 514 MW, which was 80 percent below the average rate of the wind energy development in the country over the last five years and the lowest increase in installed capacity over the last two decades. The German government would like renewable energy sources to cover 65% of the country’s electricity demand by 2030. The German energy think-tank Agora Energiewende has calculated that an annual increase in onshore wind power capacity of 4 GW is needed to make this happen. However, it was not even possible to achieve an increase of 1 GW of new capacity from wind energy last year.
Growing social resistance is also an issue here. Some residents stage protests against new wind investments, citing arguments about the negative impact of turbines on wildlife, especially birds and bats. At the same time, most scientists and environmental activists question these arguments and provide no support to the emerging social resistance. Critics of wind energy, which has been developing fast in Germany so far, demand a revision of the country’s energy strategy, arguing that the development of renewable energy has been done randomly.
In mid-May this year, the ruling coalition in Germany came to an agreement on onshore wind turbines, giving the industry a chance to grow again. According to the proposed regulations decisions on the minimum (but no more than 1 km) distance between new turbines and residential buildings will be in the hands of the 16 German federal states, which opens the possibility for decisions made at a regional level.
How will the situation develop in Poland? Reduced demand for electricity due to the coronavirus pandemic fosters the development of renewable energy. As sources with low variable cost, renewable energy sources (RES) take priority in selling electricity to the grid, which may now give them an impetus for development. The Minister of Development Jadwiga Emilewicz announced in December last year that the act on wind farm investments would be amended. According to her statement, at the end of 2021 the Distance Act will cease to apply in favour of local decisions on new investments, just like in Germany. However, it is not known whether this will actually happen as the government may still want to support the coal industry, which is becoming unprofitable, with wind farms and their competitive price additionally exposing the ineffectiveness of coal-powered plants. Over the past years, government policy documents on energy and climate have already been amended many times, creating a lot of uncertainty. A clear vision and strategy for developing RES will be the most crucial aspects for the growth of the industry.