A different Energiewende

Friday, February 7, 2014

Poland moves a step closer to its own nuclear energy

AFTER debating the possibility of nuclear energy for years, the Polish government has at last come up with a scheme. On January 28th the economics ministry presented a detailed 150-page plan paving the way for the construction of two nuclear-power plants. By 2016 the sites of the two plants will be picked. Two areas close to the Baltic coast, Choczewo and Zarnowiec, are on the shortlist. Three years later construction is to begin and, by 2024, the first plant should be producing power. A state-owned energy company, PGE, will manage the project, which will cost an estimated 40 billion-60 billion zloty ($13 billion-19 billion).

The government’s adoption of the scheme is the most important step so far in preparations for the construction of the country’s first nuclear-power station, says Andrzej Bobinski at Polityka Insight, a think-tank in Warsaw. But it does not guarantee that any Polish atoms will actually be split. The scheme fails to answer two of the most important questions: how can it be financed? And how can it be made profitable? The government insists that no public money will be used to build any nuclear-power plant, so it needs to find a private company or a consortium that is willing and able to make such a huge and risky investment.

Kai-Olaf Lang from the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, a think-tank in Berlin, agrees that many questions hang over Poland’s nuclear-energy ambitions. “A lot depends on the European Union’s decarbonisation policy,” he says. Poland is the EU’s largest lignite producer, and more than 80% of the electricity generated in the country comes from coal (see chart). Until now Poland has just about met its EU obligations to cut CO2emissions. But last month the European Commission invited EU countries to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by 40% by 2030, after planned cuts of 20% by 2020 (all relative to 1990 levels). It also wants a “binding” EU-wide target of at least 27% for the share of renewables in the overall energy mix.

Another issue for Poland’s nuclear future is public opinion. Surveys have found a majority of Poles in favour of nuclear energy, but this could change, particularly when the proposed site of a nuclear-power plant is close to home. Poland has an election next year. The opposition Law and Justice party, although it has been more enthusiastic in the past about nuclear energy than the ruling Civic Platform party, is now calling for a referendum.

Shale gas could also play a role. Until now, the exploration of shale gas in northern Poland has moved at a snail’s pace, thanks to a combination of bureaucracy and environmental worries, much to the frustration of foreign investors. The government is trying to change this. On February 5th the environment ministry announced a new shale-gas law intended to cut red tape and regulatory obstacles. To investors’ relief, NOKE, a state operator, will not be part of the licensing process. “I believe this will encourage exploration,” says Kamlesh Parmar, chief executive of 3Legs Resources, an investor.

Krzysztof Kilian, a former boss of PGE, doubts that the government can embark on the production of nuclear power and shale gas at the same time, as both require gargantuan investments. Meanwhile, Russia is building a nuclear-power plant in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave north of Poland. So far Poland and Lithuania have both declined Russian offers to export power to their countries, as both are trying to reduce their dependence on Russian energy, which is overwhelming in Lithuania’s case and considerable in Poland’s. In June last year the construction of the plant was temporarily suspended.

“The Polish government does not have a consistent energy policy,” complains Mr Bobinski. It seems to be hedging its bets with the nuclear projects while trying to speed up shale-gas exploration and watching the price of CO2emissions. Whereas Germany has embarked on its controversial Energiewende—a retreat from nuclear energy—with Teutonic rigour, Poles are still hesitating about which way to turn.

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