Will the EU Recovery Fund Support a Just Transition of Poland's Coal Regions?

a coal mine
Polska Times
Will the EU Recovery Fund Support a Just Transition of Poland's Coal Regions?

A crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic requires decisive steps. One of the sectors of the Polish economy that could benefit from the recovery from the crisis is the energy sector. The European Union is allocating €723.8 billion to its Recovery and Resilience Facility, which aims to pull European economies out of recession. The condition for qualifying for this pool of money was, among other things, the presentation of national plans for the decarbonization of the economy.

The Polish government's concept of reconstruction after the crisis was approved by the European Commission on June 1 this year. The celebration, however, did not last too long. The recovery funds have still not been disbursed as Poland has not yet complied with a ruling from the Court of Justice of the EU on the independence of its judges.

The EU’s pandemic recovery fund could mobilize Warsaw to unleash a reform of its energy system towards a low-carbon economy, as outlined in Poland’s National Recovery Plan. Could the Fund also stimulate the energy transformation of Poland’s coal regions? The last dispute over the lignite mine in Turów revealed the cards of the Polish government: its intention is to maintain the operation of an open pit mine at least until 2044. Do we still have a chance for a successive and fair transition away from coal?

Poland is not the strongest player in climate policy in the European Union, often showing reluctance and sluggishness in negotiating and adopting policies to reduce carbon emissions. Recently, however, there has been a certain change in the attitude of Polish policy-makers, which has been reflected in the inclusion of ambitious plans towards low-emission energy sources in the National Reconstruction Plan — such as the development of offshore wind energy and solar, as well as nuclear energy. However, one can get the impression that this change of attitude is by no means caused by concern for the climate and the desire to move away from coal-fired energy, but rather by economic and political calculations.

In 2021, electricity from coal accounted for 72% of the country's energy production, while renewables accounted for only 17% of the country's power mix, according to Polish think-tank Forum Energii. Poland is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the European Union, second only to Germany. Despite the words of Marek Suski, MP and chairman of the Committee on Energy, Climate and State Assets, that “our forests and crops absorb more carbon dioxide than the energy sector produces,” Polish forests absorb only about 5% of our country's total emissions, according to research group Nauka o Klimacie (Climate and Science). What's more, when looking into the greenhouse gas emissions that the main domestic source of energy generates, Poland was ranked 6th in 2020, after other coal-dependent countries such as South Africa, Venezuela or China.

If all goes well, Poland will soon receive PLN 158.5 billion ($33 billion) from the European Recovery and Resilience Facility, both in the form of non-repayable grants and loans on preferential terms. As the government assures, 42.7% of this amount is to be allocated to meet climate goals. In this case, the National Reconstruction Plan emphasizes, among others, the replacement of old coal furnaces, the purchase of photovoltaic panels and support for investments in offshore wind farms in the Baltic Sea. However, there were no plans to shut down mines and coal-fired power plants in the country. The Recovery Fund can provide market incentives to stimulate investment in green energy. At the same time, however, a coherent strategy for decommissioning fossil fuel infrastructure is still missing, and this may not only delay the energy transition, but above all prevent its fair and inclusive course.

Looking at the situation in the mining area of Turów, one can get the impression that the energy transformation of this region will be halted for a long time as a result of the maintenance of the open-pit lignite mine. The mine’s shutdown is currently 2044, according to the concession issued by the Ministry of Climate and Environment, but many people express hope to postpone this date a few more years ahead. "The open-pit mine will operate at least until 2044, and perhaps even longer," says Wojciech Dobrołowicz, Mayor of Bogatynia, where the open pit is located.

So what about the need for an energy transition? "Of course, it is indispensable. However, we do not want it to happen too fast," he adds. At a session of the Polish Parliament in March 2021, when asked about emotions and divided opinions regarding the future of the mine, the Mayor openly admitted that he would defend the maintenance of its operations.

The mine in Turów has been operating in Poland since 1947. Coal is mined by performing an opencast method that extracts minerals from an open pit in the ground. The Turów coal-fired power plant operating at the mine — in the hands of Poland’s state-owned energy company PGE, the country’s largest power producer — has an installed capacity of 1.5 GW and annually consumes about 12 million tons of lignite mined next to it. According to various data, the power plant produces between 4 to 7% of Poland’s annual domestic energy consumption. In 2021, the mine became famous due to a Polish-Czech dispute over the impact of the mine on local groundwater. The Court of Justice of the European Union ordered the immediate shutdown of the Turów mine, but instead the Polish government extended the concession for its operation for further years.

An aerial view of a mine
Poland's controversial mine is located in the south-west of the country / Credit: Mining.com.

As a result, the region risks losing the chance to get EU support for a just transition away from coal. The EU’s €17.5 billion Just Transition Fund (JTF) aims to help regions that can demonstrate that they will implement effective measures to phase out coal by 2030. This fund focuses on ensuring that the transition process considers the public interest, the concerns of workers and the well-being of the inhabitants of coal regions. The JTF would support, inter alia, upskilling and retraining of workers, job search assistance, land reclamation after mines or the development of innovation in the regions. The European Commission informed that the Turów Basin lacks this will and the region has no chance of receiving funds from the JTF.

"The sluggishness and such a large stubbornness of local and national politicians will bring a lot of bad to the inhabitants of the region," says Agnieszka Spirydowicz, president of Zklaster, the local cluster responsible for the development of renewables and energy efficiency in the city of Zgorzelec, 35km away from Turów.

"The European Commission does not require us to phase out coal overnight. However, it expects a willingness, a decision and a strategy for the process of coal regions moving away from ‘black gold’. Due to the lack of will on the part of politicians, the Bogatynia region lost €1 billion for the process of just transition," adds Spirydowicz.

"We are very proud of the mine and its participation in the Polish energy mix," says Roman Brodniak, deputy chairman of the Kadra Trade Union at the Turów lignite mine. "Yes, we know that the energy transformation must take place, but at the moment it is too early to close the mine in Turów. First of all, there is a lack of a coherent strategy at the national level, which would be a signpost for the future of the Polish energy sector." It is not difficult to agree with this. The Polish Energy Policy strategy until 2040, published last year, does not set ambitious climate goals and the right pace of energy transformation. In addition, it continues to promote a centralized energy model. However, this is not what the representatives of the mine are talking about. "Renewables are too volatile and I don't see enough potential at the moment to replace the energy produced by coal-fired power plants. We very rarely invite journalists to the mine, because no one wants to know our point of view. The mine has become the center of dispute and great emotions," adds Brodniak.

"The opposition to renewable energy sources most often comes from ignorance or unawareness of its potential," says Agnieszka Spirydowicz from ZKlastra. "The energy generated at the Turów power plant, quoting PGE, is about 7 TWh per year. Last year, in Poland, the production of energy from renewable sources reached almost 20 TWh. Only in our region we already have almost 100 MW installed mainly in photovoltaics. At the moment, the members of the cluster are preparing projects that will ultimately have a capacity of 2GW of green electricity."

Following the recommendation of the European Commission, the surfaces of open-pit mines should as much as possible be transformed into pumped-hydro storage power plants after their closure. This system, used in many countries on the sites of old mines, can act as a storage solution for energy produced from renewable sources.

"According to our calculations, a pumped-storage power plant, created in the future at the Turów excavation, could reach a capacity of 2.3 GW, which is exactly what we need" - says Spirydowicz on behalf of ZKlastra. "We have developed a strategy to manage the energy transition in our region. In it, we proved that we are able to cover the current electricity production from the Turów power plant with the help of an appropriate mix of renewable energy sources, mainly solar and wind. The installation of renewables means not only lower emissions, but also new jobs. Over the past 23 years, employment in the mine has decreased by 62%. Without support from the Just Transition Fund for those made redundant, we need to think about alternatives that will bring new jobs."

Will the energy transformation in Turów take place despite the lack of support from the JTF and in opposition to the government's policy? "The market itself will lead this process,” answers Agnieszka Spirydowicz. "The only problem is the lack of will and support of policymakers for clean energy sources, and this deters some investors. In the region, we are proving that decentralized energy is possible." Looking at investments in renewables in the region, it is easy to get the impression that local residents are reaping its benefits. Under some photovoltaic panels you can see the cultivation of bear garlic. A kilometer away, you can find a free charging station for electric cars from solar power. Clean energy installations in the area pose a huge contrast to the mine located along the same municipal road, just a few kilometers away.

Speaking of the energy transition, it is necessary to recall the context of the war that has been taking place behind Poland’s eastern border since February 24 this year. In 2020, 80% of the coal consumed in Poland came from domestic mines, while the rest was imported from abroad. The vast majority of imports came from Russia, whose share reached 75% that year. The war in Ukraine and, consequently, the embargo on imports of Russian coal raises the question of how to fill this production gap in the system. We are talking here not only about large thermal and electrical power plants. Poland leads in the ranking of coal consumption for heating in households in the European Union and one should be aware that they largely used coal from Russia.

"We have a lot of pressure on us," says Roman Brodniak from the Turów mine. "Please note that after the ban on coal imports from Russia, it is in the hands of Polish mines to fill this gap. The time to close the mine is the worst possible."

However, this could be a good time to replace them with heat pumps or prosumer solar collectors. It could also be an additional argument for increasing the pace of development of wind and solar energy.

Joanna Pandera, head of the Warsaw-based Forum Energii think-tank, proposes the implementation of a strategy to save energy in order to reduce demand, but also the development of renewable energy sources. "The more renewables in the system, the lower the consumption of coal and gas. It is urgently necessary to unlock the development of wind energy and continue to support PV," she says. A similar view was presented by a study conducted in June this year by Blue Media under the name ‘Ecological attitudes of Poles’. As many as 70% of respondents believed that Russia's invasion of Ukraine should force a revision of the energy sector in Poland, and the government should support its transformation towards green sources.

What do the inhabitants of the region think about the future of coal?

It's hard to meet someone who would not have an opinion on this matter. Some residents work in the mine or in sectors related to it. Interestingly, even among them you can meet people who support the energy transition, knowing that the era of the black fuel must end. There are a lot of such voices, but due to the conflict of interest, these people are forced to remain anonymous — as the mine still feeds their families.

However, everyone feels the same fear for the future of their jobs prevail. "I'm at a protective age, before retirement, so I'm not afraid of anything. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues have already been dismissed. If we were covered by the Just Transition Fund, at least we would get benefits from these exemptions. Unfortunately, they can't count on it," says an anonymous mine worker. More than a thousand people took part in a survey on the energy transition in the Turów Basin in March 2021. 51.4% of voters voted in favor for the mine and power plant to continue operating by 2044. The remaining 48.6% voted to start the decommissioning process of the plant before 2035.

"[The open-pit mine is] A hole that devours, at the same time feeds,” says a resident of Opolno-Zdrój, a village that was once a spa town with healing waters, and now successively absorbed by the open pit.

"Some of them try to defend the heritage of the region by cooperating with conservators of monuments or organizing artistic and cultural events. The others, however, are looking forward to the mine buying their land. This will give them money and the opportunity to move to a place that does not resemble an apocalypse on a cliff in the landscape,” he adds. Despite the fact that Opolno-Zdrój has been included in the draft Development Strategy of the Bogatynia Commune for the years 2021-2027, for those whose land will not be bought, this town will have the character of an extinct settlement. If the region had a chance to obtain EU funds for a just transition, certainly some of them would move to support the protection of valuable monuments or cultural heritage of towns such as Opolno-Zdrój.

The EU recovery fund would undoubtedly have a chance to support the construction of renewable energy sources in Poland. But what about the decommissioning of coal infrastructure and the well-being of residents of coal regions such as the Turów area? At the moment, they cannot count on the Just Transition Fund or on the favor of current politicians. Perhaps they will be supported by a market that forces the closure of less profitable energy sources, including coal mines. A great opportunity undoubtedly lies in the activities of local activists, organizations and social activists. They know best the specifics of the region and know how to restore its identity from before its ‘coal age’. It seems that it is civil society that can best lead the energy transition process and perhaps, with a certain pool of resources from the European Recovery and Resilience Facility, do so in a just way.

Thanks to the extended concession, the mine working is constantly expanding and now has become a hole with a size of 36 square kilometers and a depth of 230 meters. This depth is to reach 245 meters before 2044. The excavation in Turów is the largest hole in Poland and one of the largest in Europe. The open pit is more than twice as deep as Lake Hańcza — the deepest lake in Poland. Its size can be compared to over 5,000 football fields.

On the other side of the open pit, looking from the observation deck located in the mine, you can see windmills already rotating on the Czech side of the border. "Unfortunately, those wind turbines spoil my view," says one of the mine's employees, looking at the landscape of the huge excavation.

This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published by Polska Times on 16 September 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Electricity from coal accounts for 72% of the Poland's energy / Credit: Dominik Vanyi.

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