Going green saves money, spins profits in coal-addicted Poland

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

KISIELICE, Poland (AFP) — Standing in the shadow of a massive windmill, Mayor Tomasz Koprowiak thinks part of the answer to Poland kicking its coal habit is blowing in the wind and growing in farmers' fields.

"Our new straw-fired heating plant serves 80 percent of the community and is saving everyone money," Koprowiak says of Kisielice, a poor north-eastern rural municipality of 6,500.

He is something of a pioneer in Poland, where green energy is still rare in a rapidly growing economy almost entirely reliant on coal for electricity and heat.

The fossil fuel is largely responsible for the 2004 EU member's annual 300 million tons of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions -- 1.1 percent of the global annual total and nearly twice the annual EU per capita average.

But Kisielice's enterprising mayor insists he is more interested in saving money than the environment.

"You don't have to be an ecologist to go green," he says. "People are interested in cheaper heat, promoting ecology wasn't really a factor in our decision to go green -- it just really paid-off."

The switch in 2004 from imported oil and Polish coal to plentiful local straw to fuel a three megawatt central heat and hot water plant has brought 1.3 million zlotys (340,000 euros, 425,000 dollars) in annual savings, Koprowiak boasts.

Extra cash raked-in by farmers from annual sales of the 3,000 tons of straw burned in the biomass furnace, is ploughed back into the local economy, he adds.

Solar panels to heat water during the summer for even greater savings are Koprowiak's next step.

But this is just the tip of the ... haystack.

Thanks to his early planning, Kisielice has attracted two Spanish wind farms, generating an additional 1.3 million zlotys per year in property taxes on 27 windmills.

Koprowiak expects an extra million zloty annual windfall in 2009 when blades begin to spin on 20 new 85 meter-high (279 feet) turbines.

Farmers earn a handsome 5,000 euros annually in lease fees for each windmill on their land.

"Nobody's complaining," Koprowiak says of the wind farms, oft slammed in the West as noisy eye-sores.

For Roman Adamski, principal at the local public school, hooking up to the municipal straw-fired heating plant in 2005 has saved his chronically underfunded school an average 51,000 zlotys each year. With the extra cash he installed energy efficient windows, further boosting savings.

"It's economically viable, environmentally friendly and, especially important for us, it has educational value for the children," Adamski says.

Indeed, at 15, pupil Ewka Okonska is lobbying her parents to install solar panels, but laments that "it's still too expensive."

CO2 emissions from biomass plants like the one in Kisielice are up to 60 percent lower than those produced using fossil fuels, says Antoni Faber, an academic and Polish biomass expert.

But he cautions that the price of biomass like straw could skyrocket as demand grows.

With 30 percent of Poland's total annual emissions coming from small coal or oil furnaces in households and small businesses, Kisielice could serve as a blueprint for emissions reductions in small communities, says Grzegorz Wisniewski, head of the Warsaw-based think tank, the Institute for Renewable Energy.

"It's important to reduce coal use in small furnaces, because it's impossible to filter emissions for CO2," he says. "On the other hand it's in these small systems that it's easiest to introduce renewables and increase energy efficiency."

The European Union's planned climate package sets industrial targets of giving renewables a 20-percent stake in the electricity market, reducing CO2 emissions by 20 percent and increasing energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels.

Poland will host the United Nations' December 1-12 climate conference in Poznan, although its liberal government has threatened to torpedo the flagship EU climate deal should costly auctions of CO2 emission quotas risk stunting its developing economy.

According to World Coal Institute figures for 2007, Poland and South Africa are the most coal-dependent countries in the world.

An estimated 150 years of reserves also make comparatively clean-burning hard coal Poland's number one conventional energy resource.

Its 105 industrial coal-fired power and heating plants produce 60 percent of its annual CO2 emissions.

"We need to invest billions of euros in the modernization of our energy sector and we want to combine this process with reducing emissions," Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, Poland's Secretary of State for European Affairs told AFP in comments on the mammoth task of upgrading the communist-era energy infrastructure to curb CO2 emissions through improved efficiency.

"Poland's economy is based on coal and any real alternative like nuclear, is a long way off," says Tadeusz Skotnicki, production chief at the 110-year-old Wujek coal mine in the heart of southern Poland's Silesian coal basin.

"At the moment our company and really Poland's entire coal sector is having a hard time just keeping up with rapidly growing demand."

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