In May 2023, the Polish parliament has passed a law that facilitates the construction of biogas plants. The new rules are intended to help smaller towns in particular ensure energy stability and accelerate the transition away from coal. Critics, however, argue that the new law is a case of too little, too late in an agricultural country that would be ideally suited to biogas.
To put things into perspective: there are currently about 380 biogas plants operating in Poland compared to about 10,000 in Germany. The total capacity of the former is over 270 MW, while the latter figure is almost 6,000 MW. This stark difference is all the more astonishing because Poland is still an agricultural country. It has a great potential for sustainable energy production from biogas if it takes into account lessons learnt in other more advanced biogas markets, e.g. with regards to negative impacts on agricultural markets and pollution with nitrates.
The change introduced by the parliament is significant, as it substantially raises the current limit of permissible installed capacity from 500 kW to 3.5 MW and simplifies the process for obtaining building rights and connecting plants to the grid. It allows any natural or legal person running a farm, any entrepreneur related to agri-food processing as well as wine producers to build a biogas plant. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that this will make it possible to produce up to 14 million cubic metres of agricultural biogas per year or 8.4 million cubic metres of biomethane made from agricultural biogas.
It turns out, however, that while the legislator has increased the permissible capacity of biogas plants and expanded the group of potential investors. The old regulations were kept in place when it comes to governing the minimum distance of an installation, which is set at “10 metres from premises intended for human occupation on neighbouring plots” (but not less than 15 metres from windows and doors in these premises). Such far-reaching liberalisation raises widespread and justified resistance from local communities, who fear the stench and accuse lawmakers of opaque relations with future investors.
And it is this very detail that once again brings to light the bizarre truth about the Polish renewable energy market. The liberal law on biogas plants is the work of Sovereign Poland (Suwerenna Polska), a radical right-wing group in coalition with the Law and Justice party that will not have a government majority after the Polish general elections of 15 October. This is the same Sovereign Poland that aided the blocking of the wind energy market. The so-called 10H distance rule for many years inhibited the development of the wind industry in Poland because it allowed the installation of wind turbines only with a distance from buildings of at least ten times the height of the wind turbine (e.g., a wind turbine of 200 metres height required 2000 metres of distance).
After talk of scrapping the so-called 10H distance rule came the time for brutal specifics: Janusz Kowalski, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Government Plenipotentiary for Energy Transformation of Rural Areas, and Sovereign Poland politician, submitted an amendment to the parliament, under which the minimum distance of a wind turbine from residential buildings would be 1000 metres. If it were to come into force, it would de facto freeze the development of this renewable energy source. For now, the distance is 700 metres, which with Poland’s high population density, seriously limits the possibilities of building wind turbines. The Ministry of Climate postulated a minimum distance of 500 metres. An analysis by Ember, quoted by the daily “Gazeta Wyborcza”, shows that at the 500-metre distance from buildings, 10 GW of new wind energy capacity could be created by 2030, with the current figure being approx. 5 GW. At 700 metres, this value is only 4 GW. Meanwhile, studies from the Ministry of Agriculture show that the potential of Polish biogas plants is a maximum of 2 GW. The leaving government has simultaneously adopted a bill limiting the installation of photovoltaic farms.
At first glance, the practice of putting the brakes on some types of renewables while now, belatedly encouraging biogas, seems difficult to explain. The Polish right has recently stopped (at least officially) contending the need for rapid decarbonisation, apparently noting that its efforts to torpedo the EU’s climate policy are not bringing results. The spectre of energy shortages and blackouts causes politicians to seek energy sources to help maintain Polish energy stability. So why is the government introducing a liberal law on biogas plants with one hand and blocking the development of wind energy and meddling with solar energy with the other?