How Coal-Dependent Poland Learned To Love “Supermarket Solar”
The country known for the highest coal dependency in Europe has been experiencing a marked shift towards renewable energy sources, many on the micro scale.
WARSAW — Still far too coal dependent, Poland has begun making the shift towards sustainable energy. One of the key drivers of the transformation has been the “micro-installations” of solar panels, which produce up to 50 kilowatts of renewable energy.
Poland is currently one of the fastest growing markets for solar power in Europe, with an estimated 1.3 million micro-installations in total, and emerging plans for large solar farms.
In 2022, Poland installed the third-highest number of new solar power capacity, trailing only Germany and Spain. It now has the sixth-highest total installed solar power in the EU.
However, Poland currently still depends on coal for roughly 70% of its energy production, and 50% of its single-family homes are heated by coal power. Coal’s implications have been significant, and Poland’s air pollution is currently two times the WHO’s recommended PM 2.5 guidelines. Aside from emissions issues, Poland’s coal dependency also contributed to an energy crisis last winter, when import bans on Russian coal drastically raised the prices of domestic resources.
Faced with the prospect of high coal prices this coming winter, and propped up by simplified paperwork, many Poles have opted for micro-installations, which supplied a combined 5.77 terawatt hours to the Polish energy grid in 2022. That number is only expected to go up in the future.
With the lowest prices starting at 300 PLN (a little over €64), micro solar installations have become an affordable alternative to traditional heating methods. And the difference has only become greater. Last year, coal prices soared to 2632.10 PLN, about €570, per ton, a sixfold increase compared to 2021.
The trend towards solar has also impacted Poland’s rural communities. In many cases, these micro-installations are the only source of energy for rural households not connected to the energy grid.
Belchatow Power Station, the largest coal power plant in Poland.
Solar power from store shelves
The typical solar installation fixed to Polish rooftops has a strength of 5-7 kilowatts, and takes up 20-30 cubic meters of space. It requires an investment of around 20-30 thousand PLN (about €4,300-6,500), which includes surcharges, but this type of installation can power most of a household’s appliances.
An increasing number of Poles are “spontaneously” buying solar installations available on store shelves.
For consumers, buying one of these micro-installations has traditionally involved designing the exact installation, inspecting their house for compatibility, and selecting an installation company and the type of panels that they wish to purchase. However, an increasing number of Poles are “spontaneously” buying solar installations available on store shelves, ready for installation. Several hardware stores and internet retailers have recently begun to offer them.
But how much does this type of installation cost, and what does it power?
Generally, the smallest panels, or readily available “solar installations” from the supermarket or online stores, can be divided into two categories depending on their strength.
The first of these are micro-installations, which are typically portable panels that consumers can take with them on trips to the mountains, to the beach, or install onto campers. They are typically less expensive but also less practical for use in the home, due to their limited energy production, which ranges from a maximum of 50-70 watts of electricity, depending on the model.
That does not mean that these types of installations do not have any sort of potential use inside the home. For instance, they can be used to charge cell phones and bluetooth speakers, headphones, power banks, and LED lights. They are equipped with USB ports and screws, with which they can be attached to a balcony or rooftop.
Stronger panels, from 100-160 watts, can power a laptop, tablet, small television, or smaller home appliances on a sunny day. Essentially, any device that can be powered by a USB port, or that you can charge in your car can be powered by this type of panel.
In Poland, these panels are typically seen affixed to garden sheds, over garages, or even on boats along a river or the Baltic Sea’s shoreline — which they use to fulfill basic electrical functions.
What are the prices?
Installations with 110 watts of power, equipped with USB ports and attachment elements for flat surfaces amount to a total of 339 PLN (€73.38). Those with 160 watts of power cost 549 PLN (or €118.84).
But who exactly is driving this micro-installation growth in Poland?
Solar energy on garages and balconies
“Over the years, buyers have become increasingly aware of ecological concerns, as well as with the cost saving aspects of natural sources of energy," says Katarzyna Wajkowska, who works for the Jula chain of hardware stores. “Because of this, the number of questions about the possibility of installing these appliances has increased as well," she adds.
“A small solar installation with a large enough energy storage (battery) is able to power lights, a television, radio, or electronic appliances in the spring, summer, and early winter," Wajkowska says.
But what are customers doing with these panels? “Our panels are most often used on gazebos, summer houses, camping trailers, and garages," Wajkowska says. “Lately, customers who have bought solar panels in the past are returning in order to add them to their existing installations and increase their power and potential uses."
Multinational gardening retail chain Leroy Merlin has also noted the increases in public interest. Aside from smaller micro-installations, they also sell larger installations, which go for about 2,000-3,000 PLN (about €435-653). These can be attached onto balconies and power larger household appliances.
“Larger, but still relatively small installations with a power between 400 and 800 watts have a wide range of uses," says Pola Madej-Lubera from Leroy Merlin. "What is important to know for buyers, is that installations weaker than 800 W do not have to be declared to their local power plants."
In 2017, furniture giant IKEA began offering their own solar panels, presenting them in showrooms. In spite of some buzz around the chain’s new offerings, Poles were not buying these IKEA panels en masse, leading the retailer to pull them from sales late last year.
“Due to the dynamic market situation in the area of renewable energy solutions, IKEA Retail in Poland decided to suspend the ‘Solar energy for home’ service as of Dec. 31, 2022. We are currently assessing what the future offer could include in order to better respond to the needs of our customers and be as accessible as possible to people in Poland," said Aneta Gil, external communications leader at IKEA.
Children playing near solar panels.
Do micro-installations pay off?
At a moment where Poles have been exposed to near-constant news about rising energy costs, many are wondering whether it is worth investing in micro-installations.
A small installation may actually result in an increase in electricity bills.
Of course, to achieve measurable economic savings from home installations, consumers also need a bidirectional meter, provided by power companies free of charge. But this is usually more trouble than it is worth in the case of such a small installation, especially since next year solar consumers will pay dynamic prices, which change based on the time of day that the energy was consumed. In the case of a small installation, this may be counterintuitive, and actually result in an increase in electricity bills.
The government has introduced a subsidy program for solar installations on balconies, but it is aimed at communities and housing cooperatives, rather than individual households.
One of our readers, Gregorz from Otwock, installed a large, professional solar installation onto his balcony, and wrote to Wyborcza about the process. “It's very simple. The panels are attached to the balustrade with metal clips, they are very light. I had to use an electrician to run a power socket outside to which I connected the installation. The electricity from the photovoltaics goes from the balcony to the apartment through this socket and powers home appliances," he writes.
Sellers' reports show that many people ask whether they can count on any subsidies when purchasing micro-installations. Unfortunately, such panels are too small and do not fit into any support system.
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