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The Warsaw Voice » Business » May 28, 2008
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Condemned to Coal
May 28, 2008   
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Prof. Jerzy Buzek, former Polish prime minister, a member of the European Parliament and its rapporteur on the development of energy technology in the European Union, talks to Leszek ¯mijewski.

The European Union has set itself some ambitious environmental goals up to 2020: a 20-percent growth in energy efficiency, a 20-percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions, 20 percent of energy consumption to come from renewable sources and 10 percent of road vehicle fuel consumption to come from biofuels. What does this mean for Poland?
It is a huge challenge for Poland. However, in terms of energy from renewable sources, for example, Poland has been given preferential treatment, with a 15-percent target in the overall energy balance in 12 years' time. It's true, though, that the conditions for using renewable energy in Poland are worse than in many other EU countries. We cannot count on wave power or tidal power, we don't get perfect sunshine, winds are relatively weak and variable, experiments with geothermal energy are not promising. Neither can Poland produce significant amounts of power in hydroelectric power plants, something Sweden is doing with success, taking advantage of the huge water resources of its mountain rivers. In Poland such resources are limited and we cannot-and don't want to-build more dams, also for environmental reasons. Of course we should not neglect neither of above mentioned renewables. But I think we should try to make the greatest possible use of biomass and biofuels, preferable second-generation ones.

Does Poland stand a chance of achieving its target? Today just 4.5 percent of energy produced in the country comes from renewable sources.
We will certainly try to get as much done as possible while being aware of existing dangers and limitations. The production of biomass as a source of renewable fuel is developing on an ever-growing scale, which is a positive trend though it also reduces the acreage designated for food production.

The best wind conditions are in coastal areas, and that's where wind farms will be set up. The best place for them would be offshore of the Baltic Sea but, even ignoring the landscape aspect, this causes a lot of economic problems (the greater cost of building wind towers and transmitting electricity to land) and legal issues (hindering navigation and fishing, violation of protected natural areas, and so on), so it's no easy matter.

Solar energy in our climate can be and is used as a supplementary source of heat, but on a relatively small scale.

Then there's geothermal energy. News of allegedly huge geothermal water resources in Poland, which pops up from time to time, is obviously untrue. Previous attempts to use geothermal energy give little cause for optimism, though of course it should be utilized as much as possible, wherever possible.

This doesn't sound optimistic. Do you think there is any form of obtaining renewable energy that could become Poland's area of expertise?
I think that what could and should develop well in our conditions are biogas plants. They produce a raw material that can be designated not only for direct household use but also for the production of artificial fertilizers and electricity. Electricity from gas produced from plants-a fully renewable source-is quite a good solution. The development of biogas facilities is also a huge opportunity for rural Poland, for farmers. We could generate power in almost every commune from locally grown plants. Moreover, we should exploit in the same way most of the wastes, especially in big municipalities.

However, and this is true of all renewable energy, this kind of production is dispersed and conducted on a small scale, or in the case of wind farms-a variable scale. Incorporating this energy into the whole system would require modification of the existing network or building a whole new intelligent power grid covering the whole country. The Danes have done this and the results are extraordinary. Instead of a dozen huge power plants they have hundreds of small power supply points. They changed their entire power grid and combined everything into a single efficient system.

In all, then, this huge "15-percent challenge" also creates extraordinary opportunities primarily for previously neglected provincial Poland, Polish villages and small towns where it's hardest to find jobs. The production and operation of equipment used in renewable energy generation, the inflow of new technologies could result in thousands of attractive jobs. I am convinced that if we treat this goal not just as a huge challenge but also a huge opportunity for our country, we can cope with implementing it.

Let's assume we've succeeded. If Poland obtains 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources in 12 years' time, it will still have to produce the rest by other means. We can't really count on the discovery of any substantial oil or natural gas deposits, can we?
Of course Poland will never be a Kuwait or Norway. But fortunately, we have our own, huge coal resources, both hard and lignite, and production of synthetic oil and gas from coal is not so difficult. I don't think we can avoid the necessity of building nuclear power plant. That's a major cost, but our calculations also have to account for the fact that neither renewable nor nuclear energy endangers the natural environment (except of some nuclear wastes, of course). Power generation from both these sources produces no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas whose emissions we also have to reduce substantially. We also need to remember that these two energy sources are not mutually competitive, but complement each other perfectly. Biogas plants, solar and geothermal energy are primarily excellent sources of heat rather than electricity. Meanwhile, we need to have a supply of both.

We have to convince people-and that's more a task for politicians-that nuclear energy is safe. In new-generation reactors nuclear fuel is almost completely utilized, and the waste is not dangerous. An accident or a terrorist attack in modern power plants is almost impossible, the entire process is computer-controlled and any unauthorized attempt at manual interference with the process causes it to be halted automatically, power is cut off and reactors are shut down.

From two nuclear power plants, we would obtain another 15 percent of energy for our overall balance.

With renewable energy, that would be about 30 percent of energy in 2020, if we succeed. What about the rest?
The other 70 percent will come from coal and coal only-our national treasure. According to estimates, Poland's energy needs in 2020 will be about 50 percent greater than today, so that 70 percent in 12 years' time will mean just as much power generated from coal as today, so there is no question of reducing the burden on coal-burning power plants. Of course we need to modernize them or even build new power units, based on completely new technologies, eliminating carbon dioxide emissions.

We have to learn new, environmentally friendly technologies for utilizing our coal resources. That's the most important thing for Poland, apart from obtaining energy from renewable and nuclear sources. In terms of electricity Poland today is the most self-reliant country in Europe, with around 99 percent generated from our own sources-95 percent from coal and 4 percent from renewable sources-and just 1 percent from imported natural gas or oil.

However, if we don't master clean technologies for using coal, we will have to buy electricity abroad. That's possible, but very expensive. The construction of power bridges to our neighbors means spending about zl.30 billion.

Thus, without negating the necessity to seek and use alternative sources of energy, of which I am a fervent supporter, there is just one choice-we have to learn to handle coal.

Is that the purpose of the Polish Clean Coal Technologies Platform, formed in late February at the initiative of power corporation Vattenfall Polska, and the Polish National Contact Point for EU Research Programs?
Yes, establishing the platform is a step in the best direction. I solicited its formation, in fact I see myself as its "godfather." Among other tasks, the platform will deal with exploring possibilities for implementing CCS (carbon capture and storage) technologies for trapping carbon dioxide, transporting it safely and storing it in Poland's geological structures, for example in mines that are no longer operational. Experts claim that there are porous rocks under almost all of Poland which are great for storing huge amounts of carbon dioxide instead of it being released into the atmosphere.

On an industrial scale, these projects are still largely at the test stage, but enjoy the support of the European Union. It is up to our industry, science, and above all the political support of the Polish government as to whether this translates into concrete EU money. We need to remember that the "development golden triangle" in the EU comprises public authorities (also regional), business (companies, corporations) and science (state-of-the-art technologies).

I am convinced that mastering clean coal technologies will allow Poland to maintain its energy independence.

Jerzy Buzek - born July 3, 1940 in ¦mi³owice near Cieszyn, Poland. Graduated from Politechnika ¦l±ska (Technical University of Silesia) with a degree in chemical engineering (specialized in processing engineering and environmental protection). A member of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the representative of Poland at the International Energy Agency. A co-founder of INCREASE - an international network of scientific institutes. Prime Minister of Poland 1997-2001. Member of European Parliament (EPP-ED Group) since 2004.
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