Poland’s power grid needs €25 billion upgrade for renewables: report

Poland’s electricity network requires a major investment of at least €25 billion to enable the transition away from coal towards renewables and nuclear energy, according to a recent report on Poland’s energy transition. Poland is 70% reliant on coal for its electricity production but will need to shift to low-carbon technology to meet EU climate goals and decrease energy bills for consumers. But while the country is making progress in its renewables rollout and has plans for nuclear energy in the 2030s, its electricity network is holding it back.

“Grid connection refusals have become a major obstacle for the decarbonisation of the Polish energy mix in recent years,” said Wojciech Modzelewski, a lawyer with ClientEarth, an environmental charity.
“Massive investments in the grid are crucial today to strengthen Polish energy security, lower electricity prices and reduce CO2 emissions,” he told EURACTIV.

Between 2015 and 2021, Poland saw almost 6,000 connection refusals issued by grid operators blocking a total of around 30 gigawatts in the country, mostly renewable energy capacity, according to a ClientEarth report.

Things deteriorated in 2021 which saw a sharp increase in the number of refusals by as much as 70% compared to 2020, the NGO adds. This was mainly because of a lack of technical connection possibilities and lack of free grid connection capacity, it says. This is concerning as it blocks progress on the country’s decarbonisation and progress towards energy independence. According to a recent report on Poland’s energy transition by Ernst and Young (EY) consultancy, the maintenance, modernisation and development of the country’s grids are key to the country’s energy security.

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Outdated grid needs modernisation
One problem is that Poland’s grids are based on the outdated idea of one-way electricity, flows from large power plants to the end consumer. But this logic is being turned around as more Poles install renewable technologies like rooftop solar panels and heat pumps, or turn to electric vehicles.

“The grid was designed and built for large conventional power plants. When our energy system was undergoing transformation towards distributed renewable energy sources, not enough investment was made to remodel the operation of the grid,” said Modzelewski. Poland’s distribution grid, the last part of the electricity infrastructure which delivers power to homes, industry and other end users, requires the biggest upgrade, said Aleksandra Gawlikowska-Fyk from the Polish think tank Forum Energii. According to the EY report, out of at least €25 billion required to update Poland’s electricity grid, €18 billion is needed for the distribution network.
“I think the distribution service operators are not prepared for this kind of revolution yet in Poland, although they should have been because this is something that is going on,” said Gawlikowska-Fyk, referring to the increase in renewables. “At the same time, the development of renewables is very fast and it’s impacting grid stability etc. But it does not mean that it cannot be overcome,” she told EURACTIV.

A grid upgrade is needed in particular to deal with fluctuations in electricity generation and changes in the direction of flows, with intelligent bidirectional meters and IT solutions to manage energy storage, according to the EY report. Modernisation is already underway. For instance, Poland has introduced rules mandating that at least 80% of end use consumers should have smart meters by the end of 2028, including at least 80% of households.

Infrastructure in the wrong place
While the transmission network – the high-voltage lines that transport the bulk of electricity – needs much less investment, there are still issues that need to be overcome. For instance, much of the infrastructure is located in the south of the country when Poland is investing heavily on the development of offshore wind and nuclear power in the north. Currently, connection capacity in the transmission system is only available in central and south-eastern Poland and there is a lack of available connection capacities in the north and west of the country, according to the EY report.

ClientEarth also found that the highest number of refusals were in the north due to the obligation to reserve connection capacities for future offshore wind farms.

Poland currently has over 15,000 kilometres of transmission networks at the highest voltage and the operator, PSE, plans to contract more than 3,500 kilometres more, expanding the grid by almost a quarter. Warsaw is also looking at building cross-border connections, including an undersea power cable to Lithuania called “Harmony Link”, expected in 2025. Further cables linking Poland to Denmark and Germany are also under consideration. But more work is needed to optimise electricity transmission between countries, according to EY.

ClientEarth is also calling for sharing transmission infrastructure between multiple generation sources, more transparency on connection capacity, and introducing regulations that allow easy construction of direct lines connecting renewable power generation to consumers. The modernisation of Poland’s grids should be a government priority to ensure the country’s renewable energy potential is reached, the NGO argues.

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