28th Mar 2023

Polish backpedal on windfarms put EU funds at risk

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Draft legislation in Poland aimed at relaxing some of Europe's strictest laws surrounding onshore wind-turbines has been derailed by a surprise last minute amendment, which could put Poland back on a collision course with the EU.

The draft law had been expected to allow municipalities to change the restriction to 500 metres between homes and turbines, effectively making it easier to build on-shore wind farms.

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The current "10H" law, which was introduced by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) in 2016, prohibits the construction of wind turbines within a distance of 10 times their length from residential buildings or national parks, effectively a minimum distance of 2,000 metres. This effectively blocked any development of onshore wind since 2016, because this law only allowed wind turbines to be built on only two percent of Poland's territory. 10H would still apply for national parks and in municipalities that want it.

Hand-written amendment

The amendment was introduced by Marek Suski, chairman of the parliamentary energy committee, of the PiS, by means of a handwritten-note during the debate in Poland's parliament the Sejm on 27 January. The newly-proposed amendment would set the minimum distance at 700 metres, which experts say will severely limit investment opportunities in renewables in Poland and even threaten energy security.

Figures within PiS and the climate ministry had expected the draft legislation to pass as seen without the votes of their right-wing coalition partners and figures within the votes of the opposition, with this last-minute change surprising onlookers.

Analysis by the Polish Wind Energy Association shows that increasing the minimum distance to 700 metres reduces the possible installed capacity by approximately 60-70 percent.

According to the association's president Janusz Gajowiecki "without 500 metres, the wind farm act is a bummer — no new wind farm will be built for 10 years" adding that this amendment will have "tragic consequences for wind energy" that make it impossible to use the potential of Polish wind. "Instead of a dozen or so, only a few [gigawatts] of wind capacity will be created. This is de facto a further blocking of onshore wind energy. This is incomprehensible in the face of the energy crisis and dramatically high energy prices"

Controversy around windfarms

Wind farms are unpopular with PiS' mostly-rural base, many of whom patriotically support coal mining and believe that EU renewable energy targets are intended to make money for German companies, a common talking point in government-run media.

A senior figure in the climate ministry pointed out ahead of Friday's debate that the windmill law was almost identical to Bavaria's, itself the strictest state in Germany, and was implemented at a similar time. "The compromise we tried to prepare wasn't an easy thing to do, it's a difficult discussion in Poland because there are different perspectives depending on where you live on the issue. Members of parliament are representing regions and coming from an area. The idea we had in the ministry to try to find a compromise is to give power to the local community to decide within a certain frame."

Blackouts and higher bills

Paweł Czyżak, a senior analyst at renewables think tank Ember, warned that tinkering with the draft legislation "risks blackouts and higher bills".

"Unlocking the full potential of Poland's wind power is the only way to keep the lights on and put a halt to the skyrocketing costs of coal-based electricity. We need wind turbines right now and reducing the buffer zones to 500 metres is the only way to achieve that. By tinkering with the agreed upon consensus Poland will shoot itself in the foot, risking the loss of billions in EU funding. The government needs to realise that without cheap power from renewables and financial support from the European Union, Poland's economy will collapse — which is the last thing the ruling party should want during next year's elections," Czyżak said.

Attracting investment for on-shore wind farms was supposed to be a crucial part of the compromise reached between Poland and the EU so that Warsaw could access €35.4bn in grants and loans from the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) that had been blocked by the EU Commission following disputes over the rule of law, among other issues. The opposition Civic Platform coalition promised that if they win this autumn's elections they would implement the 500m rule.

According to Tobias Adamczewski, director of the renewables programme at Forum Energii told EU Observer "the 700 metre rule is meant to stall wind investment, period. That's the point. This was a political promise. Some people from the government party won office based on a promise of stopping wind turbines. The ruling coalition has their own fractions inside, and some politicians made their political careers on stopping wind turbines and they're in different places. It's not that easy for them to just let go."

A report by Forum Energii pointed to renewables as a key solution for reducing energy dependency in a country that still imports oil from Russia. "Last year the import of gas, oil and coal cost Poland PLN 89 billion [€19bn]. This year, it will be much more — by the end of June it already amounted to PLN 85 billion [€18bn]. The supply crunch and spike in fuel prices have become the source of an economic and energy crisis, and a means of exerting pressure on Europe. Meanwhile, renewables not only reduce emissions and energy prices, but also import dependency on energy resources."

Author bio

James Jackson is a freelance journalist reporting from Berlin, covering Germany and Central & Eastern Europe. He writes for outlets such as BBC, The Times, Financial Times, Euronews and others. He was a 2022 IJP fellow in Warsaw, and before that a staffer at Deutsche Welle.

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