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European Union

Renewables are destabilizing the energy system

Drone view of wind turbines farm on yellow field (Photo: iStock – Adriana Duduleanu)

Professor Władysław Mielczarski, an engineer and energy expert, was interviewed by Tomasz Cukiernik for the Do Rzeczy weekly. He explains why renewable energy sources do not fit well in energy systems that are mainly based on coal-fired power generation, such as those of Poland and Germany. This is even more true of nuclear-based power generation as in France. Mielczarski’s explanation of the situation in Poland helps understand better why energy production is becoming increasingly expensive and unstable in Europe.

 

Professor Władysław Mielczarski works with the Institute of Electrical Power Engineering at the Technical University of Lodz. He has more than 40 years of experience in the electric power industry. He has participated in the design and implementation of electricity markets in Australia, Canada, and Poland.

What do you think about the so-called “energy transition” being enforced by the European Union?

Unfortunately, it is having a very negative economic and social impact. It is causing European Union countries to become increasingly uncompetitive, particularly vis-a-vis Asian countries, where there is no such policy, and also vis-a-vis the United States, where such a policy is enforced, but only when it benefits the US economy. In the European Union, the energy transition is imposed on member countries through the legal system, namely through directives and regulations. It has a very negative impact on the economy and limits its development, and European societies have to bear enormous costs.

The second problem is that an energy transition of the kind envisioned by the European Union, supposedly to achieve a zero-carbon economy, is not feasible. We are spending a very large amount of resources and efforts on something that is not feasible.

Why is it not feasible?

When I look today [in early December 2023] at the information about the so-called energy mix provided and updated by the Polish Power Grid on its website, I see that 95 percent of electricity is currently being produced from coal and gas. We’ve had a decarbonization policy for 20 years, but the main fuel for our electricity remains coal. This shows the ineffectiveness of all these measures that are being taken.

How does this transformation affect Poland?

The transformation is being carried out under the slogan of reducing CO2 emissions. This is called the green energy transition, decarbonization of the economy, the move toward climate neutrality, the zero-carbon economy, etc. These efforts are aimed at reducing carbon emissions in various sectors of the economy. At the forefront is energy, but it also applies to construction and transportation.

This green transformation is furthest advanced in the energy sector. It is implemented in two ways. The first way is by imposing taxes on traditional technologies, such as coal technology and gas-fired electricity and heat generation. The ETS tax, as the obligation to purchase emission allowances is called, must be paid by all CO2 emitters in the European Union’s energy sector. The purpose of this tax is to make traditional energy more expensive and make renewables competitive, although when you take all the subsidies for renewables into account, they are still more expensive than traditional technologies.

Subsidies for renewables come in various forms. Direct subsidies consist of subsidies for the purchase cost of installations. In indirect subsidies, the obligation to balance the unstable production of renewable energy is transferred to conventional power plants, and the cost of this balancing is paid by all energy consumers in the so-called capacity fee that appears on every bill. The balancing service for renewables is provided by the transmission system operator through the power market system, and all customers are charged these costs. Another subsidy for renewable energy is the “credit vacation,” sometimes 15 years, when settling so-called positive balances, meaning excess revenues from the market. Another element of indirect subsidies is the cost of grid development, which is also borne by all energy consumers.

Poland has a well-developed electricity grid for the needs of all consumers. Therefore, the development of the grid is needed not by consumers, but by renewable sources, especially prosumers, who are in fact privileged producers. It is these new renewable energy installations that require grid construction so they can inject more of their energy into the system.

Then there is the interesting social aspect of renewable energy development and subsidies for these technologies. For the most part, the costs of renewable energy development, including the costs of grid construction, are socialized, i.e. distributed to everyone, but the profits are received only by a group of privileged people, such as owners of wind farms and photovoltaic farms, as well as prosumers. For example, if a prosumer wants to buy a panel for himself, he gets a subsidy. All consumers pay for this, including those who do not have these panels. When there is a need to balance unstable renewable energy production, this is done by traditional power plants at the behest of the grid operator, who charges the cost to all consumers. Grid development costs are also charged to consumers by operators through grid charges, even though consumers do not need the grid to be expanded – only renewable energy producers do. Prosumers, for whom the grid is being developed, pay only a small part of the grid fee, and most of this fee is imposed on customers living in multi-family housing, who are not prosumers and do not need the grid development. It can therefore be said that those living in big residential buildings subsidize wealthy villa owners who install solar panels for themselves.

The energy transition means, in practice, the implementation of neoliberal social policies. There is a clear flow of resources from poorer people to wealthier groups, who are further privileged by the transformation. This is happening both among layers of society and among countries.

In Poland, we have a program to build offshore wind turbines, assuming a capacity of 5900 MW in the first stage. This is an insanely expensive investment of more than $100 billion. This will be paid for by all Polish consumers in Poland. This money will not stay in Poland, but will flow to countries that produce wind turbines and can install them, namely Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark. Will Poland make money from it? There is rumored to be a special depot for rotor blades in Łeba. You don’t have to be a great expert to know that you won’t make much money from a depot. A tower welding plant is also to be built in Szczecin, if enough welders can be found in Poland. It is estimated that 95 percent of the funds that Poland is to allocate to offshore wind energy will be transferred to other countries that are more affluent and technologically advanced. Although this also has a “positive” aspect, as many Western European wind turbine companies have serious financial problems, so Polish help is badly needed. Reducing the required distance of wind turbines from buildings, which is planned in the new law, will certainly increase Polish orders for wind turbine installations placed in Western Europe.

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It is said that renewable energy installations are destabilizing the Polish electric power industry. How is this happening?

In 2022, 22 percent of all electricity in Poland was produced from renewable sources. It’s not too much. But at the same time, for example, on October 8, 2023, there was a situation where the energy demand in the system was 14,000 MW, and the energy planned to be generated was 21,000 MW. There was going to be 50% excess energy because the wind was blowing and the sun was shining. It was known that renewable energy would try to push its way into the power system, despite the fact that the system is not capable of accepting so much energy. Fortunately, on October 8, 2023, the grid operator managed to export 3,000 MW. In addition, some wind farms were shut down. The same happened on April 26, 2023. As the number of renewable energy installations grows, we will increasingly see wind turbine and solar panel farms being shut down so as not to destabilize the system.

This does not mean that owners of wind turbine and photovoltaic panel farms will suffer any losses. Renewable energy producers are compensated when a farm is shut down. Imagine a company anywhere in the world that is paid for production whether or not it really produces something.

Sometimes the reverse is true and there is a shortage of production from renewables. For example, since November 18, 2023, when sunshine has been scarce and winds have not been strong, more than 93 percent of energy demand has been met by coal- and gas-fired power plants. We also need to import significant amounts of energy, sometimes up to 4,000 MW, which can be about 20 percent of total demand. It is necessary to maintain capacity at conventional power plants, as renewable energy sources often do not work, and electricity must be supplied to the public and the economy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The destabilization of the electricity system results from the fact that when the wind blows and the sun shines, a huge number of renewable energy installations are working, trying to inject the energy produced into the system, and the system cannot absorb such a large amount of energy. It then becomes necessary to shut down these farms so as not to destabilize the system. And when renewable sources don’t produce power, the grid operator has to turn on the conventional power plants that are kept available year-round. A vicious cycle is forming. We are building more and more wind and photovoltaic farms, but there are so many of them… that we have to shut them off.

Another source of destabilization is that if the weather conditions are not right, renewables must be replaced by coal-fired power units, and in the process of decarbonization, in Poland, we are closing down not only coal mines, but also coal-fired power plants. One day – perhaps as early as next year or the year after, but it will definitely happen, because that’s what the Polish Climate Ministry’s projections show – there will be no energy from the sun or wind, and we will no longer have enough coal-fired power units to compensate. Then there will be a failure of the electric power system, namely a power blackout.

But isn’t it also the case that when all renewable energy installations are working, the work of conventional power generation units is reduced?

This is another phenomenon. The situation is that renewables are not obliged to balance the grid, that is, to adapt to energy demand. They have priority. Renewable energy power units work and generate energy when they want to. They operate according to the “generate and forget” principle. I mentioned situations where the electricity produced from renewables cannot be accepted by the power system. There are also situations where renewable energy is accepted into the system, but to make room for renewables, the electricity produced by conventional power plants is reduced. In Poland, conventional power plants produce about 19,000 MW of power, but when there is too much renewable electricity, they have to reduce generation to as low as 6,000 MW, which is our power grid’s critical threshold. They can’t go any lower, because the grid would then be unstable.

However, coal-fired conventional power plants were designed to run 7,000–8,000 hours a year. Because of renewables, instead of working those 8,000 hours, such power plants work less than 4,000 hours a year. This means they can’t cover all of their costs with revenues from energy sales. This issue is well-known and is called missing money. But conventional power plants must operate because they need to be always available and provide energy security. That’s why a system called the Power Market was introduced in Poland. The operator subsidizes the available power plants so as to keep them alive. This costs 5 billion zlotys (about 1.15 billion euros) a year. These subsidies are indirect subsidies for renewables, the cost of which is borne by all consumers.

Where do the subsidies come from?

The subsidies come not from the state budget, but directly from energy consumers’ bills. Every electricity consumer has a so-called capacity charge on his invoice, which is earmarked for renewable generation balancing surcharges. However, it is unclear how long we will be able to subsidize renewable energy through the Power Market system, since we have permission from the European Union to operate the Power Market only until 2025. There is talk of extending the system by two years. That’s short, and there’s not much that can be done, because it takes four to five years to build a gas-fired power plant, five to six years for a coal-fired power plant, and more than 15 years for a nuclear power plant.

I’ve been told that the fact that coal-fired power plants are forced to constantly reduce and increase their energy production causes them to emit more CO2 per unit of energy produced than if they were running steadily. Is this true?

Yes, of course. If there is sun and wind, renewable energy sources produce up to 40 percent of demand for a while. But every day – whether it’s winter or summer – energy production from wind or photovoltaics must be replaceable by energy production from coal. When the sun shines or the wind blows, energy production from conventional power plants is reduced to make room for renewable energy, and when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, coal-fired power plants must supply the missing energy regardless of the time of day and year or weather conditions, because only such plants ensure energy security and continuity of the energy supply.

The conditions change at least twice a day…

And this has a very negative effect on technical installations. Imagine driving a car, braking and accelerating to the maximum, and then braking and accelerating again all the time. How long will such a car last? And this is how conventional power plants work to stabilize production from renewable energy sources. They wear out faster and are much more expensive because more coal is used. If you turn off a coal-fired power plant, it has to cool down, and when you turn it back on, the temperature in the power boilers has to rise as high as 1,000 °C, because the steam in modern boilers can reach 600 degrees. This kind of operation, when the whole unit – boiler and turbine – cools down and then warms up, cools down and warms up again, significantly reduces its lifetime. The power plants were designed that way and, until there were no renewable sources, they ran a minimum of a week or more without a break to achieve their best efficiency. A power plant would work evenly for 10 days, then it would be stopped for two to three days and an inspection would be made. It would then be restarted and again work evenly for another 10 to 14 days or even more. Today, these power plants are being forced to make rapid load changes every day or even shut down to accommodate the input of renewable electricity into the grid. And it is difficult to accurately plan the operation of conventional power plants, as wind and sun forecasts are not accurate. Sometimes there are errors of up to 50 percent in overnight forecasts.

I have also heard it said that the effect of renewable energy installations is that Polish rivers are heated by coal-fired power plants.

In Poland, we have two systems for cooling power plants. Most power plants operate in a closed system. They have those characteristic large cooling towers. These systems are very efficient. Evaporation from the cooling tower is 2 percent of all cooling water, and the water that evaporates will fall back on the ground in the form of rain. For the supply of water to closed systems, a small river is sufficient, like at the largest coal-fired power plant in Europe, Bełchatów. There is a dam on the small river Widawka and that is enough. However, we have two power plants that are causing a bit of trouble. These are the power plants in Połaniec and Kozienice, which operate in an open system. They are cooled by water from the Vistula River. There, the power plant’s operation does indeed have an impact on the temperature of the river water. The planned nuclear power plant in Choczewo is to be built on the Baltic coast and cooled by seawater in an open system. This will have a very negative impact on the environment.

In your opinion, what should the future of the Polish energy industry ideally look like?

We should use what we have. Coal deposits should be used as long as they exist. Renewable energy sources must also be used, but to the extent that this is possible without compromising energy security. And enthusiasts of new technologies must be asked to be humble before the laws of physics. Because we as engineers can only do what is consistent with the laws of physics. Politicians, with their parliamentary resolutions and EU directives, will not change the laws of physics. And what they are doing could end up completely destabilizing the electricity system.

 

 

This interview was first published in Polish in the Do Rzeczy weekly in December 2023.