Transforming energy systems in Europe: towards a German-Polish model

January 14, 2013 | 00:00

Transforming energy systems in Europe: towards a German-Polish model

No two countries seem to be further apart in their energy policies than Germany and Poland. Whereas Germany is pursuing a hugely ambitious Energy Transformation, Poland is probably the most reluctant country in the EU when it comes to embracing ambitious climate policy goals. This is leading to increasing frictions between the two countries. However, according to Dietmar Nietan, a Member of the German Bundestag for the SDP and Chairman of the German-Polish Association, despite their different approaches, there are plenty of opportunities for the two big neighbours to work together in the energy field. Nietan issues a strong plea for a new German-Polish energy partnership that could be a model for Europe.

Dietmar Nietan (c) Aachener Nachrichten
The annual UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 18) that took place in Doha last month once again demonstrated how difficult it is for the international community to identify joint strategies for curbing climate change. Time is running out. We Europeans have a responsibility to set a good example and take the lead on protecting the climate. Yet the EU has been sharply criticised for its inability to present a united front in Doha.

The EU Member States have agreed energy policy targets up to 2020, and that is a positive step. What's more, the EU has now started to develop strategies for the post-2020 era as well: the Energy Roadmap 2050 sets out the EU's policy course for the longer term. Intensive cooperation among the European countries on protecting the climate and expanding the renewable energy sector is essential. As we move forward on this basis, however, we must take account of the interests, experience and ideas of all the EU Member States, which is not always an easy task. For example, the EU countries have not yet managed to make a unilateral commitment to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent by 2020 against the 1990 baseline. Germany is in favour; Poland is against - yet again, many critical observers will say.

A European energy revolution: the only effective way forward

And indeed, developing a common climate and energy policy is proving to be a challenge for Germany and Poland. The two countries are pursuing widely divergent approaches here. Nonetheless, there is major potential for Germany and Poland to work together and generate momentum.

Germany is making major progress on the transformation of its energy systems and regards itself as a pioneer in this field. It goes without saying, however, that a project as large and complex as this cannot be entirely problem-free. From a climate protection perspective, of course, the energy revolution cannot take place fast enough. However, the pace of infrastructural expansion is sluggish: the power grid needs to be upgraded as a matter of urgency in response to the challenges ahead, and the construction of new transmission routes takes time and is proving controversial, not least among local action groups and potentially affected communities. Continuing to operate gas- and coal-fired power plants will become increasingly unprofitable as priority is given to green power but is nonetheless essential since wind and solar will not be available all the time. The fear of a blackout is ever-present. What's more, electricity prices in Germany are rising, causing concern among business and domestic consumers alike.

The energy revolution in Germany is having an impact on our neighbours in Europe as well. On the one hand, they can benefit from technological advancements in the renewable energy sector, but on the other, the slow pace of grid expansion, for example, has a spillover effect on neighbouring countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic. When German green electricity production is operating at maximum capacity, surplus power is routed into the Polish and Czech grids - posing new challenges for their grid management systems. Indeed, the Czech Republic is now planning to build in a capability to decouple its national grid from Germany's in order to keep German wind power out and ensure that Czech nuclear plants come on-stream instead.

For Germany, like all EU states, there is one fundamental truth: no country can make progress on

For Germany, like all EU states, there is one fundamental truth: no country can make progress on climate change on its own
climate change on its own. The energy revolution will only be successful through joint planning and intensive cooperation among the Member States. Only a genuinely European energy revolution will be effective. Cooperation among individual countries can provide new impetus. For Germany, the most obvious partner is its neighbour Poland, which has similar geophysical conditions and natural resources to our own.

Poland: in search of energy security

Poland is often thought to be applying the brakes on European energy policy. Underlying its position is, first and foremost, its fear that stringent rules on emissions would harm its own energy-intensive economy. In light of its past experience, too, energy security is understandably a high priority for Poland. We all remember the controversy over the arrangement between Germany and Russia for a Baltic natural gas pipeline, which strained relations with Poland for some time as it felt that it was being sidelined and threatened by its two powerful neighbours.

Poland would like to be less dependent on energy imports from Russia and less dependent on coal, which - at around 85 per cent - still forms the basis of its energy supply. Of course, Poland is also pressing ahead with the expansion of renewable energies, with particular success in the wind power segment. Its target is to generate 15 per cent of its electricity through renewables by 2020. So far, it has met its interim targets. But besides expanding the renewable energy sector, the Polish Government is also relying on nuclear power. It plans to increase its share of low-carbon energy sources by 2030 by building more nuclear plants, whereas Germany has already taken the decision to phase out nuclear power. Shale gas extraction is also viewed as an interesting option in Poland, whereas Germany is much more sceptical about "fracking".

On the face of it, then, Germany and Poland would seem to be less than perfect partners where energy policy is concerned. And yet despite all their differences, there are many promising opportunities to work together. Our two countries' economic and political relations can be regarded as exemplary and

In light of its past experience, energy security is understandably a high priority for Poland
provide a firm basis on which to move forward. A glance back at the recent past also shows that our two countries, being neighbours, have faced similar challenges. Only 20 years ago, more than 80 per cent of Germany's energy supply came from a mix of coal and nuclear power. Renewables, at less than five per cent, played a very minor role. Entire regions were dependent on hard coal and lignite mining. At the time, many people warned that a shift away from this energy system would mean the loss of jobs and global competitiveness. Instead, the renewable energy sector now employs around 380,000 people and has a multi-billion turnover - on an upward trajectory. These statistics should give a boost to the advocates of a strong renewables expansion in Poland.

Potential benefits of cooperation

There is clearly a political will to cooperate in the energy policy field. To mark the 20th anniversary of the German-Polish Treaty of Good Neighbourship, the two governments adopted a joint statement on 21 June 2011 which includes the following paragraph: "Germany and Poland remain committed to the development of a common European energy policy oriented towards enhancing energy security, diversifying energy sources and transport routes as well as increasing energy efficiency. Both parties advocate the drafting of a new internationally binding convention on climate change. It should also be binding for the world's largest economies and be based on the principle of a common and differentiated responsibility for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions." The same day, the two countries adopted a work programme identifying various shared energy policy objectives and practical projects.

But it is not enough simply to point out the theoretical potential for cooperation between our two countries. It is essential to identify practical ways to harness this potential, learn from each other, and to support and complement each other's activities. In this respect, cooperation between Germany and Poland is already in fairly good shape. Joint initiatives such as the task force group Bio-GEPOIT (Biomass-German-Polish Implementation Task) are achieving a number of successes. Energy production from biogas and biomass offers an outstanding opportunity, especially for German and Polish farmers. The Polish Government is already doing much to promote this particular form of decentralised energy production from renewable sources - and farmers on the German side of the river Oder could profit from this as well.

Energy system transformation in Germany also facilitates the expansion of wind and solar power in Poland, as strong demand has increased competition among manufacturers of solar panels and wind turbines, leading to technological advances and cutting the costs of these systems. As a result, the economic outlook has shifted in favour of renewables: the investment costs for an energy system based on solar, wind, hydro and biomass, with gas in reserve, will soon be comparable with the costs of a mainly fossil-based system. So if renewable energies are available in the near future at similar costs to fossil fuels but without their harmful effects, this will open up new economic opportunities for Germany and Poland alike.

As regards the integrated electricity market, the Scandinavians are pointing the way forward. An electricity grid which has strong transnational interconnections can also cope with power generation infrastructures which vary from country to country. The development of a strong transnational grid acts as a built-in brake on costs - the larger the interconnected grid to balance power supply and demand, the less need there is to maintain expensive reserve capacities for a few hours a year. Adequate interconnectors must be available, however. In the gas market, too, which is so important for energy security, Germany and Poland can increase their security through cooperation.

The idea of creating a European energy security architecture is still on the table. In 2006, the then Polish President Lech Kaczyñski proposed the formation of an "energy NATO". In response, the German

By integrating and utilising existing structures such as the International Energy Forum and the Energy Charter Treaty, Germany and Poland together can provide fresh impetus
Foreign Minister of the day, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, mooted the idea of an "energy CSCE", to include non-EU and non-NATO countries as well. Although there is room for further discussion of the scope and impact of these two proposals, the notion of solidarity and closer integration in the energy sector is one which should certainly be taken up. By integrating and utilising existing structures such as the International Energy Forum and the Energy Charter Treaty, Germany and Poland together can provide fresh impetus here.

A German-Polish energy partnership: a model for Europe

As neighbours, Germany and Poland should develop their energy systems together, not in opposition to each other. An energy partnership agreed between Germany and Poland, with interconnectors to the Baltic region which is so important to both countries, could serve as a model for the rest of Europe. This partnership should be established in a firm institutional framework involving not only the governments but also scientists, energy experts and non-governmental organisations working together. Its initial task would be to identify the ways in which the countries in the heart of Europe can move forward together towards a safe, economically viable and environmentally compatible energy supply, with a view to implementing these approaches on a progressive basis. Financial support from the EU would be useful, especially in the early stages, when energy and environmental policy objectives must take precedence over commercial aspects.

Germany and Poland will still share a common border in 2020, 2030 and 2050. It is very likely that countries which have learned early on to utilise energy and natural resources in a manner which is as productive and efficient as possible and which have set ambitious standards for that purpose will be most successful in the competitive global markets. If Germany and Poland, in conjunction with other EU countries, could agree on this vision, work on the shared challenge - namely an energy revolution for Europe - could begin.


About the author

Dietmar Nietan is a Member of the German Bundestag (SPD) and Chairman of the German-Polish Association.

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