KEY POINTS

  • The Warsaw government predicted photovoltaic power will dominate the country’s energy profile by 2040
  • Poland is now the fourth-biggest solar market in Europe
  • Poland agreed to shut down its coal mines by 2049

Poland, one of the world’s biggest producers and users of coal, has made a bold move to phase out fossil fuels and develop more renewables, especially solar energy.

Warsaw predicted photovoltaic power – the method by which solar cells convert energy from the sun to generate electric power -- will dominate the country’s energy profile by 2040. By that point, Poland’s solar capacity – that is, the maximum output of electricity from solar power – is expected to surge to 16 gigawatts from 2.5 gigawatts currently.

(One gigawatt is equal to the energy generated by 3.125 million photovoltaic panels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy).

The Polish government also predicted that by 2040, coal will account for as little as 11% of the nation’s energy mix – down from about 80% now.

However, one of the region’s most prominent photovoltaic developers said he thinks Poland will switch to renewables even faster than the government projects. Deividas Varabauskas, chief executive officer of Sun Investment Group in nearby Vilnius, Lithuania, said Poland’s solar energy markets can soar as the country gradually exits from dependence on coal.

“Big Polish utilities are becoming likely buyers [of solar panels] now,” he told Bloomberg. “We could become partners. They are the established players in the old energy world and we’re kind of the guys from the future.”

Indeed, Poland is now the fourth-biggest solar market in Europe, after Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported.

Sun Investment expects its solar projects in Poland will have 400 megawatts of capacity by the end of 2022.

“At a certain point, the [energy] market will just say it makes no sense for us to keep running on fossil fuels,” Varabauskas said.

The Polish government has big plans to wean itself off fossil fuels: The country plans to invest 150 billion zlotys ($38.5 billion) to build its first nuclear power plants, which are expected to be operational by 2033.

However, the ruling Law and Justice Party said it cannot meet the European Union’s goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050. (Poland is the only EU member that has made such a declaration). Poland has asked the EU for more time to turn green.

After negotiations between the government and mining unions, Poland agreed Friday to shut down its coal mines by 2049. Polish President Andrzej Duda originally set a date of 2040 to close down all coal mines, then pushed that target to 2050. Unions wanted the closing date extended to 2060.

The agreement calls for no mandatory layoffs, Rather, workers will relocate from closed mines to those that stay open until they retire.

“This is the direction of Poland’s mining and energy sector transformation. We are following the EU policies,” said Artur Sobon of the state assets ministry.

Mining trade unions – which represent tens of thousands of coal miners – had earlier bristled at the government’s plans to shut down the industry gradually because they feared it would lead to job losses

While coal unions have had significant political influence in the past, falling energy demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as rising costs, have rendered them weaker.

Poland remains the most coal-dependent nation in the EU -- in fact, a single coal mine, Turow, in southwestern part of the country, supplies 8% of the entire nation’s electricity.

Some in Poland’s government want to follow the model of its powerful neighbor to the west. Germany plans to depart the coal industry by 2038. That scheme involved providing financial compensation to mining firms, power plant operators and employees transitioning from coal to other careers in renewable energy.