Anna Kucharska, what is your assessment of the German approach to restructuring the energy system?
The German energy transition is highly ambitious and the transformation process is in full swing. There is a very strong desire for Germany to achieve the targets it has set itself within a tight time frame. I would describe the German approach as visionary and well-thought-out, but, at the same time, relatively complex.
What are the particularly good features of the German approach?
There is political consensus about the implementation of the energy transition. I think it is admirable that Germany has set itself ambitious goals and drawn up a plan for achieving them. This is by no means the case in all European countries. The cooperation between the research community and industry is rapidly resulting in new and easily implementable solutions. There is a clear understanding of the geographic conditions in the country and renewable energies are being subsidized on this basis. I find the continuity in the political sphere highly impressive. The only outstanding issues concern important details, but these must not be underestimated.
What could have been done better in your view?
The other side of the coin is that in my opinion the German targets are not realistic. The technological progress needed for the transformation of the energy sector requires one thing above all and that is time. This is an evolutionary process that must take place step by step. It is not possible to completely restructure the energy system overnight. Furthermore, I do not believe that coal, gas, and nuclear power should be phased out simultaneously given the targets that have been set, particularly in an industrial nation like Germany. To give just one example, the decision has been made in Germany to phase out coal, but it is still being used in certain industries. The consequence of this is that more coal will have to be imported over the next few years. Nuclear power, which is carbon-friendly, is being phased out, but electricity generated by nuclear power stations is being imported and, therefore, radioactive waste is being produced. In addition, Nordstream 2 means a reliance on burning natural gas that is harmful to the climate. All these contradictions are often overlooked and they will lead to less rather than more climate neutrality in the short to medium term. A more realistic time frame would mean that this climate damage could perhaps be avoided.
What route is Poland taking to achieve climate neutrality?
We have the political will to implement the energy transition, but there are also a lot of vested interests involved and a lack of basic political consensus. The Polish government has drawn up a strategic white paper for the country’s energy sector entitled “Polish Energy Policy until 2040,” but many doubts and objections have been raised relating to the strategy by experts, scientists, and specialists in the energy sector. Much more progress has been made in Poland on the scientific front than in the world of politics. A number of cooperative research projects and think tanks are currently working on the imminent energy transition, with a focus on renewable energies in particular. In addition, as part of the process of restructuring its energy supply, Poland is taking a technology-neutral approach and aiming for the broadest possible energy mix, including solar and wind power, biomass, and hydrogen as the energy of the future. The Polish government must now pave the way for the transformation. The Polish people will decide at the next election which party or coalition will be responsible for transforming the energy system in the future.
What opportunities and risks does this transformation present for Poland?
Every technology has its own opportunities and risks that must always be taken into consideration. Installing photovoltaic systems helps to protect the environment, but raw materials and energy are needed to produce solar panels and the production process leads to considerable CO2 emissions. In addition, solar panels have to be recycled at the end of their life. Neither battery manufacturing nor wind power are climate neutral. I am trying to explain that it is not just about whether a technology generates clean energy but about its impact on the climate over its entire life cycle. We need to take the entire energy footprint of a technology into consideration. If we want to set up an effective and efficient energy system, we therefore need a realistic strategy and a viable plan. Poland is still working on these.
How can European countries pool their individual strengths to combat climate change as effectively as possible?
Cooperation between the various countries is absolutely essential, but not always easy. Working together is simpler where there are no language barriers. One prime example is the German-speaking countries, where a decentralized energy supply system is being set up by Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Other important factors include the knowledge to develop new technologies, investment and therefore funding for new business models, plus international cooperation in the fields of research and teaching. However, countries are not generally prepared to share their technological expertise free of charge, because it is a valuable commodity.
Dr. Anna Kucharska has a doctorate in social sciences and is a lecturer at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations at Jagiellonian University and a specialist at the Ignacy Łukasiewicz Institute for Energy Policy. She was awarded an Erasmus scholarship to study at the University of Duisburg-Essen and is a member of working groups in the Polish Hydrogen Alliance and an expert member of working group WG5 – innovation implementation in the business environment – of the European Technology and Innovation Platform Smart Networks for Energy Transition (ETIP SNET). Kucharska is also the author of numerous scientific papers, analyses, and expert reports. Her specialist fields include the energy transition and energy policy, with a particular focus on the German-speaking countries and the Visegrád Group.