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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » June 17, 2010
Energy Security Conference
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Power Gridlock
June 17, 2010   
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Many people in southern Poland—especially those living in parts of Małopolska and Silesia provinces—have bad memories of last winter when they had to endure weeks without electricity.It seems unbelievable for such long-term power outages to occur in a modern economy.

While some argue the winter was unseasonably cold and snowy, experts warn that the risk of such outages happening again will increase with time, because the Polish power sector desperately needs new investment projects—and these cannot be launched quickly.

The power cuts were chiefly caused by freezing rain and the forming of ice on the power lines, which led to short circuits. Problems were also caused by tree branches which, heavy from the falling snow, bent dangerously close to power lines or even broke them. The struggle against the winter weather lasted three weeks. Climatologists say it was the worst winter in Poland in 50 years.

Antiquated system
According to PSE Operator, the operator of the country’s power transmission system, Poland’s antiquated power line infrastructure will become increasingly vulnerable to weather conditions and power outages like those last winter may increase in frequency. This will happen to all kinds of power transmission lines, from high voltage to low voltage to extra low voltage. Half the power transmission lines owned by PSE Operator are older than 30-40 years and will soon have to be replaced. Power distribution companies need to replace a third or so of all distribution lines. This dramatic situation is coupled with an urgent need to expand the infrastructure in connection with an anticipated increase in the demand for electricity. By 2015, PSE Operator should build 2,200 kilometers of new 400 kV power transmission lines, and distributors are expected to build around 4,000 km of 110 kV lines. While the total cost of the project may reach zl.10 billion, power industry insiders say the toughest challenge for them are not the costs, but legal obstacles.

Current regulations are the biggest hindrance to the modernization of old lines and construction of new power transmission infrastructure. According to the central auditing office (NIK), the main obstructions are created by the Law on Zoning Plans and Spatial Development, the Construction Law, the Law on Property Management, and several environment-related laws. They all cause years of delay in projects of key importance to national security. For example, they make it difficult to build power lines on private land and restrict the possibility of using some state-owned land, such as forests, for this purpose. Power sector enterprises have to wait a long time for valid building permits and the introduction of projects to local zoning plans.

As a result, a new power transmission line takes longer to build than a new power plant. Unless comprehensive solutions are found to these problems, the power sector will be unable to keep pace with the growth of other sectors of the economy and the resulting increase in demand for electricity. If the current state of affairs persists, new power plants will be built, but there will be no way to transmit the electricity they generate.

New law needed
Without appropriate legal changes or a special law applying to public utility networks, PSE Operator and other companies that build power lines will struggle carrying out their statutory tasks. As a result, the continuity of electricity deliveries to consumers cannot be taken for granted. Needless to say, power engineering infrastructure causes a problem for the owners of properties through which it passes and so the owners need to be compensated proportionally to the decrease in their property’s value. However, when property owners refuse to cooperate, projects should continue parallel to negotiations rather than depend on their outcome, even if the dispute ends up in court. Otherwise, Poland will remain a blank spot on the map of Europe in terms of power sector infrastructure, and more power outages will be just a matter of time depending on random events such as bad weather.

Zofia Zasieńska
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