WIND

Poland’s Tusk must stand up to his predecessors

Poland finally got a new government this week nearly two months after October’s election, but it is already mired in controversy over pro-wind policies such as reducing minimum setback distances for onshore wind turbines. We look at why this “scandal” can not be allowed to set the tone for energy policy in the next four years.

RICHARD HEAP

December 12, 2023

  • Donald Tusk is Poland’s new prime minister as head of a coalition government
  • However, his government has already faced criticism for its pro-wind policies
  • Its key policies include cutting minimum setback distances for onshore wind

 

Poland finally got a new government this week nearly two months after votes were counted in its election, and it has already been forced to U-turn on support for wind.

This shows that a promised brighter era for onshore wind may be tough to deliver.

Let’s first look at the electoral maths. The conservative Law & Justice Party was still Poland’s largest party after winning 35.4% of votes and 194 of the seats in the Sejm, which is the lower house of the Polish government. However, it fell short of winning the outright majority of seats that enabled it to form a government in 2015 and 2019, when it secured 235 seats each time. This backlash against the Law & Justice Party has opened the door to left-leaning political parties in Poland to form a government.

The second-largest party after the 2023 election is the Civic Coalition led by Donald Tusk, who was Poland’s prime minister between 2007 and 2014; and also formerly president of the European Council. His party won 30.7% of votes and 157 of the seats in the Sejm. This has opened the way for Tusk’s party to form a coalition with third-placed Third Way (14.4% and 65 seats), which is itself a coalition between the centrist Poland 2050 party and an agrarian group Polish Coalition; and fourth-placed The Left (8.6% and 26 seats). These results have given these three groups a total of 248 seats in the Sejm, which is enough to form the majority ratified on Monday with Tusk as the new prime minister.

This should be good news for companies in the wind industry. All three parties have set out pro-renewables policy agendas, while Tusk’s Civic Coalition has been busily drafting legislation intended to loosen the restrictions for onshore wind developers. But their support for the wind industry has already caused a political storm.

Going the distance

On 28th November, the Civic Coalition and Poland 2050 spelt out legislative plans to support onshore wind by reducing the minimum distance that wind turbines can be built in relation to homes and other buildings. Reducing the minimum distance opens up large swathes of Poland for onshore wind development and investment.

This builds on policies of the Law & Justice Party. In March, President Andrzej Duda signed into law a policy to reduce the minimum distance to 700 metres. This was a big change to the previous law that stipulated turbines had to be located away from homes and other buildings at a distance of at least 10 times their height. The wind industry said the ’10H rule’ effectively outlawed new wind farms in 98% of Poland.

However, this March change also fell short of the previous Government’s goal that the minimum setback distance should be 500 metres. This is why the Civic Coalition wants to go further and allow developers to build wind farms within 300 metres of national parks and multi-family residential buildings; and within 400 metres of single-family residential buildings. The exact distance would also be related to turbine noise.

But the planned introduction has been messy.

First, the incoming government wants to introduce the policies with amendments to existing energy law, which has brought some industry criticism for a perceived lack of legislative oversight. We will discuss the criticisms of the policies shortly.

And second, the policy itself seems difficult, as introducing a disparity between 300-metre and 400-metre cases, with reference to turbine noise, can only open questions about how the law would be applied. That appears to be a recipe for confusion and protracted legal challenges. A single rule for all cases would appear the simplest approach and reduce the legal risks for developers and investors.

Yet the fact Tusk is seeking to loosen the restrictions on onshore wind projects has also drawn criticism from the outgoing Law & Justice Party, which was historically very anti-wind due to its links with Poland’s coal sector. It thawed in more recent years by loosening the distance rules, which the wind industry still argues that 700 metres is too high, and introducing more support for the offshore wind sector.

The Law & Justice Party, and its leader Mateusz Morawiecki, have sought to dub the controversy over minimum setback distances “turbinegate” and called it “one of the gigantic political scandals of the last 30 years”. The party has levelled claims at the new government’s wind plans that appear either hypocritical or untrue.

For example, it has claimed the new government is acting in the interests of lobbyists, as if it didn’t do likewise when it was in power. It claims the plans would damage land values; would empower the government to expropriate land from private landowners, which the regulatory change’s proponents have said is untrue; would interfere with the rights of Polish citizens; and argued that loosening of restrictions on onshore wind development in Poland was being used to placate the needs of German firms, especially Siemens.

The Civic Coalition and other pro-wind parties have denied these claims, but have put the introduction of the policies on hold to listen to criticisms and eliminate any problematic elements. Developers and investors in the wind industry will have to hope that this does not set a precedent that the new government ties itself in knots trying to placate the anti-wind lobby, rather than pushing ahead with its plans.

Because here’s the thing: the Law & Justice Party didn’t get the support it needed to govern in Poland for a third consecutive term. That shows there is a mandate for the pro-renewables policy agenda of the parties that formed a coalition.

Tusk may be taking the right approach ethically and politically to listen to criticisms and refine his policies, which he has argued was an approach absent by his predecessors. But he must also not to be careful that his agenda is not delayed by opposing naysayers. Doing so will likely undermine the case for onshore and offshore wind investment in Poland.