Bełchatów Power Plant – key information
The Bełchatów Power Plant, located in the Łódź Province, is the largest power plant in Poland and the largest lignite power plant in the world. With the capacity of 5102 MW, it provides about 20% of Poland’s electricity. The lignite is delivered to the plant from two huge nearby open-pit mines: “Bełchatów” and “Szczerców”. The plant is owned by PGE Górnictwo i Energetyka Konwencjonalna (PGE GiEK), a subsidiary of the largest Polish energy company: the state-owned PGE S.A.
Lignite burnt at the Bełchatów Power Plant is the least energy-efficient fossil fuel. At the same time, it emits the largest amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) per energy unit produced in the combustion process. Burnt lignite emits into the atmosphere, soil and groundwater high amounts of substances harmful to health and the environment. The extraction of lignite from open-pit mines is associated with destruction of huge forest and agricultural areas (currently 113 km2). The need to drain the deposit in order to extract lignite significantly reduces the level of groundwater by creating a cone of depression (currently approx. 900 km2) surrounding the mine. Households, crops and natural areas located within this cone suffer from long-term water shortages.
Lignite is the most polluting and harmful type of coal. It contains highly dangerous elements such as mercury (lignite contains four times the amount that hard coal does), lead, cadmium or beryllium. It also contains substances with a highly toxic effect in higher doses: sulphur, arsenic, bromine compounds, chlorine, fluorine and selenium. In 2016 the Bełchatów Power Plant emitted 3 tonnes of mercury – as much as the entire Spanish industry that year. Emissions and dusts from the power plant and its mines pollute the soil, air, groundwater and surface water, thus affecting the respiratory, blood and nervous systems of the region’s inhabitants. As a result, 630 new cases of chronic bronchitis, 1310 cases of hospitalisation, 359 200 lost working days and 27 830 attacks of asthma in children are reported annually.
Impact on water
The Łódź Province where the Bełchatów Power Plant is located has been diagnosed in the State Environmental Policy 2030 as a region threatened by severe desertification. Open-pit lignite mines exacerbate this danger. This water shortage have a disastrous impact on local agriculture and the environment.
Since 2005, the Bełchatów Power Plant has been the EU’s largest single climate-damaging CO2 emitter (2007 was the only exception). It also ranks among the top five power plants emitting the largest amounts of CO2 in the world, giving way only to Asian plants. The power plant generates 11% of total CO2 emissions in Poland. If the country really wants to contribute to climate protection, it has to urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions from this largest Polish plant and subsequently rapidly eliminate them altogether. In 2019, PGE GiEK built a photovoltaic farm in the vicinity of the plant. Such steps are insufficient and do not solve the problem. Even if PGE commissioned such a small photovoltaic farm every three months to substitute the current energy production from the Bełchatów plant it would take the company … 150 years.
It is technically feasible to replace the energy coming from the lignite-fired units of the Bełchatów Power Plant by other sources by 2035. Experts point out that switching to renewables (RES) such as onshore and offshore wind and solar energy, supported by natural gas, would ensure a cleaner environment, maintain the country’s energy security and provide more jobs. Despite this, the owner of the plant has applied for permission to build another lignite mine: “Zloczew”. If created, it will extend the lignite combustion in the plant by 31 years, until about 2063. It will also cause 33 villages to vanish, displace over 3000 people and destroy an area of 60 km2 creating another cone of depression with a range of up to 800 km2. These plans are in complete contradiction with scientific reports on the catastrophic climate situation (for instance: reports by the IPCC) and with the European Union’s policy to achieve climate neutrality and eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The Bełchatów Power Plant benefits from state aid. Only in 2019 it received as much as 0.5 billion zlotys in subsidies which corresponds to approximately 10% of its total annual revenues. Between 2013 and 2019 the plant received over 2.5 billion zlotys in the form of free CO2 emission allowances. And between 2010 and 2013 it received almost 250 million zlotys from funds dedicated for support of green energy. Reason? The plant was co-firing biomass with lignite. After 2020 the value of subsidies for the Bełchatów Power Plant will yet increase. Under the capacity market regulations it will receive as much as 800 million zlotys annually until 2025. In the meantime, the costs of energy production from lignite will increase due to the EU’s ambitious climate policy and the resulting rising prices of the CO2 emission allowances. Market trends indicate that the technology of the Bełchatów Power Plant will be of deepening unprofitability and the cost of energy from lignite and hard coal will be increasing. This is confirmed by the loss of value of PGE’s coal assets by 7.5 billion zlotys in 2019.
The economic situation of the Bełchatów Power Plant will also be strained by quickly rising prices of the European CO2 emission allowances (ETS). These are charges imposed on installations such as power plants for greenhouse gas emissions. They will increase even more with the adoption of the European Green Deal. According to experts the adoption of the 55% reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions will increase the allowance prices within the range of 41 to as much as 76 euros per tonne.
The Bełchatów Power Plant employs 4750 miners and 3050 other employees. PGE GiEK admits that around 2033 the output and employment in the power plant and the mines will be reduced by around 50%. This will happen even if the new “Zloczew” mine is built. If PGE GiEK announced plans to close the complex, the region would be able to benefit from the UE Just Transition Fund. It is even expected that the company could receive from the largest support in Poland this way. This money well spent could mitigate the social consequences of abandoning lignite mining and combustion in the region.
A sociological research among the Bełchatów’s youth proved that 41% them assess the condition of the environment in their region as bad and 66% are of the opinion that Poland should reduce the CO2 emissions responsible for climate change. Only 6% of respondents plan their future in the lignite industry 46% intend to leave Bełchatów.
In 2019 ClientEarth filed a lawsuit against PGE GiEK demanding complete elimination of CO2 emissions from the Bełchatów Power Plant by 2035. The aim of the lawsuit is to protect the common good such as the climate, water, soil, landscape, flora and fauna which are now being damaged by the Bełchatów Power Plant.