On June 22 of 2020, Poland came very close to a countrywide power outage: Power plants with a capacity of thirteen gigawatts (out of which, only six planned) went down – and subsequently, balancing energy prices rose to record level.
It has been quite a regular Monday in Poland, but a chain of unforeseen events brought the Polish power system suddenly to its limits. Unplanned outages and failures of the power units in Bełchatów, Opole, Kozienice, Połaniec, Włocławek and others that occurred on that day led to a decrease in available capacity of about seven gigawatts, adding to the planned power output reduction of six gigawatts in several coal power stations. In total, this opened a gap of about thirteen gigawatts in Poland’s electricity supply. That day, Poland’s peak demand reached roughly 21 gigawatts, corresponding to one third of the unplanned outage. Though the Polish transmission grid operator Polskie Sieci Elektroenergetyczne (PSE) managed to avoid blackouts on a larger scale, the effects on the power markets were massive.
Especially the balancing reserve market reacted promptly: On Monday, June 22, the prices rose to about 1280 PLN per megawatt between 10 and 12 a.m., which equates roughly 285 Euros. For comparison: The normal price for one megawatt of balancing reserve in Poland is about 250 PLN, roughly 55 Euros, only one-fifth of this peak value.
This article tries to shed some light on the developments in the Polish power system, which led to the events of the (almost) black Monday in the middle of June 2020. Spoiler alert: Neither the Coronavirus nor the renewable energy producers are to blame.
Big Power Plants Can Cause Big Problems
Two years after the climate conference in Katowice, Poland is still relying very heavily on coal as its primary source of electric energy. Seventy-nine percent of the Polish power production capacity is based on lignite and hard coal. The main argument for this policy is holding workplaces in the domestic mining industry. However, even though the government is currently spending around 400 million euros a year to keep the Silesian coalmines running, they have become uneconomical. As a result, the coal to fire Polish power plants comes mainly from Russia, regardless of the massive subsidies and the poor quality of the imported coal.
The power station at Bełchatów, the biggest lignite-fired power producer in the world, is an example of this policy and the problems it causes at the same time. Since its foundation in 1981, Bełchatów grew to be the largest lignite power plant in Europe, it is the second largest coal power plant in the world. The emissions add up to the amount of 30 to 40 million tons of CO2 a year – more than Ireland or Slovakia are emitting as whole countries. The 5,4 gigawatts from Bełchatów account for roughly one-fifth of the whole Polish power demand on a hot summer day (24,14 GW) . In other words: When this giant sneezes, Poland gets the flu. However, not only the issues in Bełchatów caused the problems on June 21 and June 22 – several other power stations had severe malfunctions, too.
A List of Events that Led to the Polish Power Shortage between June 21 and 22 2020
To understand the events that led to the gap of roundabout seven gigawatts power in the Polish power system on June 22 2020, we have compiled a list of events. Though this is a non-complete list – the sum of power outages add up to only around 4.2 GW -, the depicted events show quite drastically the vulnerability of a heavily centralized fossil power system.
Bełchatów Coal Power Station, Łódź Region
Strong rainfalls came down on late Sunday, June 21 in the region of Bełchatów. One of the three giant carburization stockpiles, which supply coal to several power plant units, was flooded. Though pumping started immediately, block 5, 6, 7, and 8 ran out of lignite and in consequence, the turbines ran out of steam. Approximately 1,500 MW of the nominal power output went down.
Kozienice Power Station, Central Poland
Kozniece Power Station experienced severe technical difficulties on June 22; one of the old blocks with 500 MW nominal power output and the new B11 block with 1075 MW went down. The Polish Energy News Website Wysokienapiecie suspected a delivery of wet coal at first, a spokesperson of the power plant denied this and claimed that the reasons were merely “technical” and made no further specifications. The total power loss of 1,500 MW placed an additional heavy burden on the Polish power grid.
Opole Coal Power Station, Upper Silesia
The modern coal power station in Opole, situated about 100 km from Katowice in Upper Silesia, encountered problems with the flue gas desulfurization in block 5. Due to the high sulfur content of the low quality coal, the power production stopped immediately to prevent exceeding the sulfur emission standards. The Polish power system lost another 900 MW.
Dolna Odra Coal Power Station, West Pomerania
The control room of Dolna Odra, a coal power station in West Pomerania near the Polish-German border, detects a leak in block 8. After the immediate shutdown, the whole power output of Dolna Odra power station loses 230 MW.
How the Blackout was avoided
Poland did not experience nationwide or local blackouts on June 22 – but power outages came quite close. The cluster of events put heavy stress on the Polish power system; it could not have remained stable without help from across the borders. In a rush, the Polish transmission system operator (TSO) PSE had to import around 3,000 Megawatts from Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Lithuania. Additionally, PSE put the “cold reserve” into action, consisting of old and uneconomical power plants, but kept in standby for situations like this. Last but not least: About 640 MW of photovoltaic power, delivered between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on June 22, helped to save the day.