Poland has a chance to be among the countries that will kickstart the hydrogen revolution. But will it seize the chance?
There has been a constant (and justified) barrage of criticism about Poland’s ecological policy, which, until now has focused on delaying inevitable solutions, slowing down EU policy and building a picture of ecology as source of Poland’s woes. Against that backdrop it surprised analysts that the leaving PiS government expressed a genuine interest in a fuel that could become a significant element in decarbonisation policy. What’s important and worth stressing is that – after years of dispute, dramatic gestures, and dirty tricks – right-wing politicians have reached a moment where they’re no longer asking whether to depart from coal, but how to do so. And this is no bad thing.
Poland’s interest in developing hydrogen technology may come from a justified assumption that it has good chances in this competition. After more than 30 years of energy transformation, it is obvious that the Polish economy faces challenges. Despite the fact that Poland has significantly decreased its CO2 emissions, it remains one of EU’s top emitters, taking second place in relation to GDP, third place in absolute terms, and seventh per capita. Moreover, the emissivity of the Polish economy is still dramatically high and, after years of transformation, it is twice the EU average.
The “Green hydrogen – a revolution or a passing phase?” report by Ernst & Young, which was published in March 2023, discusses in detail the opportunities and challenges posed by the hydrogen energy industry in Poland. Its authors stress Poland’s very good starting position in the nascent technological race. When it comes to grey hydrogen – that is, hydrogen made from natural gas – Poland is currently the fifth largest producer in the world, and the third largest producer in the EU, with approximately one million tonnes of this fuel produced annually. Grey hydrogen is only a starting point: as a product originating from fossil fuels, it is burdened with the original sin of high emissivity. As a fuel it only makes sense under the assumption that the methods of capturing and storing CO2 will become cheap and efficient in the near future. Otherwise, it will not reduce the overall emissivity of the economy. The most efficient (but also very expensive) solution comes in the form of green hydrogen, which is sourced through a process that involves the electrolysis of water and uses electricity from renewable sources. With its lagging renewable electricity generation capacity, it would seem that Poland won’t have very much to say here, but we should take into account the fact that we are looking at technological processes that are on the cusp of developing. With its heavy industry, its chemical giants and a well-developed refinery system, Poland undoubtedly has an excellent starting point into the future of hydrogen.
“The 2030 Polish Hydrogen Strategy” – a government paper that was adopted back in 2021 – seems conservative. By 2025 the government is planning, for example, to install 50 MW of hydrogen-sourced power plants, establish at least five hydrogen stations, 32 hydrogen fuelling stations and to have in place between 100 and 250 hydrogen buses. The strategy clearly stresses that the beginning of the hydrogen era would happen in agglomerations and that fuelling stations will be dedicated, first and foremost, to public transport, namely buses and trains. Can these plans be fully realised? It’s too early to judge. Hydrogen valleys, or hubs, that are to link (on local markets) the entire cycle from production to use are starting to operate and there are currently eight of them. The first fuelling stations are being opened too, and next year the national operator of hydrogen valley innovations will start working. Hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are beginning to appear on the roads of Polish cities. On 12 September, Gdańsk signed a 200-million-zloty contract for the delivery of 10 hydrogen buses in 2024. The PAK-PCE Polski Autobus Wodorowy (Polish Hydrogen Bus) factory is also developing. Eventually it will produce 100 zero-emission vehicles per year. Also Orlen, a Polish fuel concern, wants to increase its production of hydrogen. It says it is looking at producing 130,000 tonnes of green hydrogen annually by 2030.
On the other hand, however, there are signs that show that we are only at the beginning of the road: the Katowice agglomeration has withdrawn from plans to gradually introduce hydrogen vehicles into its bus fleet. The tender for the purchase of fuel was cancelled – only Orlen submitted a bid, but the price proved to be unpalatable to the local government.
This is not a breakthrough yet, but it clearly heralds a change. If anything cools my optimism, it’s the experience of the past years of politicians being able – with a single cut – to halt the development of the wind sector or make activities harder for prosumers. The situation is slightly different in the case of hydrogen. Politicians, who are hypersensitive to the idea of “our” and “alien” energy sources, can present the development of the hydrogen industry as an almost autarkic project. The whole process is complicated enough to remain in the hands of the largest players, at least in the coming years. In the case of Poland this means that the entire process will be controlled by the state. This is something valued by the political class, whose aim is the centralisation of economic and social life. And this is why hydrogen is their gift from heaven.
What approach to hydrogen fuel will the new government take? During the election campaign, the environmental theme receded into the background, and the hydrogen issue was not discussed at all. However, it will certainly return: primarily because the new government will have to quickly build a fuel alternative to coal. It is clear that the European Union is not giving up on its climate ambitions. And this means that the topic of hydrogen must be taken very seriously by the current opposition.