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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 3, 2008
Power Play
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September 3, 2008   
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Wojciech Sztuba, partner at TPA Horwath, an international consulting firm that provides services to clients in the energy sector, talks to Beata Gołębiewska.

How do you see the future of the Polish energy sector?
You hear a lot of talk these days about energy security, rigorous environmental standards and rising fuel prices. The most serious problem we're facing, however, is a shortage of power. If we take electricity generation, which does not use a lot of petroleum-based products, then energy security, in the sense of having to rely on external fuel supplies, is the least of our worries. Poland is sitting on a mountain of hard coal, and we're not exactly hard up for brown coal either. This places us in a relatively enviable position. The problem, therefore, is not so much a lack of fuel but a lack of technical options to meet electrical energy demand due to our power plants actually generating less power. This is caused by having to shut down a large portion of our power units, causing their "technological death."

What do you mean by technological death?
Back in the 1960s and '70s, Poland was systematically building electric power plants, each generating power in production units. Each of these units has a boiler, turbine and cooling system which it uses to convert kinetic energy to electrical energy. Power units have a maximum life of some 40 years. Once this period expires, the unit and everything in it is technologically dead, which means there's no way it can be reconditioned or modernized. The only thing it's good for is scrap. Now, unless you're happy to forgo the power it was generating, you'll have to replace it.

Is that such a hassle? Can't you simply maintain output by replacing obsolete power units?
Theoretically you can. The thing is, we're going to have to put possibly dozens of power units-each having a minimum capacity of 200-300 MW-out to pasture over the next few years. Now the Polish power industry is in no position to replenish all that capacity. The country's largest companies would have to join forces and drum up finance from abroad. With our present level of investment, there's no way we're going to be able to maintain our current level of power generation. Not in the long term, not in the short term.

How does all this fit in with renewable energy? You seem to be all for the status quo?
As a member of the European Union, Poland has undertaken to generate 20 percent of its overall energy from renewable sources by 2020. It should already be patently obvious that we're not going to meet this. However, this has nothing to do with not being able to produce enough power, a problem that won't be fixed with renewable energy sources. Water and wind power are Poland's renewable energy mainstays. Let's forget about biofuels for now. They're certainly ecological enough, but seeing as power plants burn them together with coal, they're not going to affect the amount of power being generated-apart from the small fraction being generated exclusively from organic sources. Wind farms are extremely difficult to get up and running and, while wind power might be going through a predictable revival, it still only accounts for a small part of the energy we generate. You have to bear in mind that it takes 125, if not more, wind turbines to produce the 250-odd MW that one of these old coal-fired power plant units can churn out. All the windmills in Poland combined would be struggling to pump out 300 MW. And hydropower isn't expanding at all.

Can't we import energy instead of producing it here?
Sure we could but we'd have to surmount considerable infrastructure hurdles. We simply don't have enough transmission lines capable of bringing in copious amounts of energy from across the border. The ones we do have are already stretched bringing in energy, mainly from Sweden, Germany and Ukraine, but only on a small scale. Whether or not we can get our neighbors to supply energy for us is going to remain a non-issue without massively expanding our transmission infrastructure. Obviously, investing in new lines to plug Polish providers into foreign grids is not as big a problem, in terms of both time and money, as increasing output. Seeing as we face a domestic shortfall in power generation, now's the time to be preparing for large-scale importation by beefing up transmission capacity.

So where should we go from here?
I think that we need to get back to the idea of privatizing the energy industry, that we need to involve global energy corporations capable of financing the required level of investment, and that we need to do it right now. In tandem with this, we need to work out a strategy of building up our transmission capacity so that we can increase our energy imports. You hear discussions about nuclear energy in Poland every so often. This is essentially a bet-hedging thing. It'll be decades before nuclear energy can offer any concrete solutions to our power supply problems. Any plan to save our energy system is going to have to factor in coal as being our basic fuel. Otherwise, we're looking down the barrel of a complete collapse. And it might come sooner rather than later.
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