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Who says coal is dead? While it may be currently struggling to compete against gas and wind generation in North America, coal power accounts for over 50% of new build projects worldwide. Two-thirds of these coal power plants are located in Asia, but in Eastern Europe, steam and steam turbine technology continue to play a major role in driving economic growth. Poland rightly thinks itself as the king of coal in Europe. Compared with the European Union (EU) average of 30%, coal accounts for 93% of Poland’s power generation mix. The country burns 77 million tons of coal a year, making it the tenth largest coal consumer in the world and second largest in the EU after Germany.

Unfortunately for Poland, two-thirds of its installed coal capacity is more than 30 years old. Due to European Commission directives, the Polish power industry finds itself in somewhat of a crisis. Strong economic growth has placed already tight Polish reserve margins under strain, yet the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which controls pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulates, is forcing the closure of 6-8 GW of capacity by 2020.

Warsaw expects renewables to account for 16% of final energy demand by the fourth decade of the 21st century, while nuclear power is expected to comprise 10%. The remaining 74% will come from fossil fuel generation, the majority of which will be coal.

The EU recently approved a request from the Polish government for free Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) emission allowances for power plants. Suddenly the risks of investing in gasfired plants in a country with abundant supplies of lignite and hard coal became too great. While Polish utilities have announced plans to develop over 6 GW of gas generation, including Energa’s 900 MW Grudiadz plant and CEZ’s 400MW Skawina plant, analysts believe much of the slated investment may never see the light of day.

The Commission granted the free permits on the condition that revenues accruing from their sale are channelled into retrofitting and upgrading power plants. Poland will, therefore, mostly replace its aging coal plants with best available coal technology compliant with EU emissions directives. Consequently, despite a wider European trend away from investment in coal plants, the market for steam turbines in Poland is undergoing a boom.

Steam turbine hub

Built in 1948, the Elblag steam turbine factory in Northern Poland was inherited by Alstom in 1999 when it acquired ABB’s power generation business. It operates as the company’s European center for the manufacture of steam turbines up to 1,000 MW.

Since 1999, when Alstom doubled the capacity of the smelter to an annual 12,000 tons of pig iron and steel, 320 steam turbines installed in power plants globally have been produced at the site. Some 25% of the power equipment manufactured in Poland is consumed within its borders, and the site is now gearing up for a spate of new orders for steam turbines from Polish utilities. These include a €900 million deal awarded by EDF to supply the power train including steam turbine and boiler islands for a new 900 MW plant to be built in Rybnik.

Many of Elblag’s orders are for retrofits; Alstom is currently executing a retrofit of the turbine islands at units 7 to 12 of Belchatow, Europe’s largest coal-fired power plant. This involves an upgrade by 20 MW each of Zamech 370 MW 18K- 370 steam turbines commissioned between 1985 and 1988. The project will boost cycle efficiency by 2.4%.

In May, Alstom signed a €65 million contract to deliver new high pressure (HP) and intermediate pressure (IP) steam turbines for units 2 to 7 of the 8 x 225 MW of GDF-Suez’s Polaniec plant. Polaniec’s original 215 MW, 13K-215 turbines made by Zamech in the early eighties were modernized by ABB between 1992 and 1995. Using RS41A type blades for a low pressure (LP) turbine retrofit modernization and replacing the blades and diaphragms of the HP turbine, units 1 through 8 of Polaniec saw output raised to 225 MW. When completed in December 2014, this latest modernization will result in each unit generating in excess of 240 MW on average and extend the plant’s lifetime by an additional 25 years.

To help meet this demand, an iron foundry was commissioned at Elblag in 2009. The existing steel foundry produces around 7,000 tons/year of steel castings for turbines and turbo compressors, while the new iron foundry produces heavy castings with a production capacity of 6,000 tons/year. The company recently added a €7.5 million rotor welding shop on site.


Wojciech Peret, Elblag’s turbine factory director, says the welding shop should increase productivity by 15% while reducing energy consumption by 20%. It has shifted from a wide gap to a narrow gap welding process. “Our previous technology required a wide gap to weld rotor disc to rotor disc in a vertical position, which was time and energy consuming,” said Peret. “Narrow gaps between slots in the rotor discs allow fewer welds to the discs, and it is automatic, making it more reliable and faster without compromising quality.”

The factory’s blade production line manufactures a range of stationary and rotor blades made of various materials with a maximum length of 1,600 mm. It utilizes five-axis milling machine tools for the processing of turbine blades.

By harnessing computer algorithms to correct machining of whole blades according to design requirements, the factory’s new Automatic Corrective System (ACS) ensures registration of blades, measurement protocols, deviations, progress of the production and machining times without involving humans. This is vital for accurate measuring the pitch of steam turbine blades, i.e., the dimension when the blades have to be installed in the rotor or in the casing, which needs to be as close to 100% correct as possible. “ACS is 10% faster than before as it reduces set-up times,” said Peret. “We can check each and every dimension of the blade with a tolerance of +/-0.06 millimeters.”

In total, Elblag produces 45 full-size (1 HP, 1 IP and 1 LP) steam turbines a year running 15 shifts per week.A restriction on lifting capacity means that the site is unable to produce HP nuclear steam turbine rotors over 120 tons, but the site does produce sub- HP nuclear equipment. The diameter of the blade carriers and casings is limited to 5m, but the possibility of constructing an 8m diameter vertical lathe is being investigated.

Gas generation

Despite currently unfavorable economics, gas-fired generation will continue to play an important role in Poland’s power mix. In addition to the Yamal pipeline, which connects the country with gas fields in Russia’sWestern Siberia, Poland recently inaugurated an interconnecting pipeline with the Czech Republic, while a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal under construction at the western Baltic port of Swinoujscie is due online in 2016.

Former state-owned incumbent utility PGE accounts for 44% of Polish power market with 12.4 GW under operation, with Tauron and Enea second and third with 5.4 GW (19%) and 2.8 GW (10%). As the Polish economy grows, competition for projects intensifies.

“Like Iberdrola and Abengoa in Spain and Portugal, civil engineering construction companies not traditionally a part of the power industry are beginning to compete for EPC contracts,” said Jacob Radulski, director of Elblag and Alstom’s country president for Poland. “And OEMs like Siemens and Alstom have not been keen on the commercial conditions of these projects.”

Looking further down the track, Poland is under pressure to take a lead in carbon capture and storage “clean coal” technologies. But Alstom does not envisage supplying equipment for CCS projects in Poland. A 250 MW demonstration unit at Belchatow, which would result in a reduction of 1.2 million m.t. of CO2, has been put on ice.

“There is €180 million in the bank but Poland hasn’t touched it,” says Radulski. “PGE has spent its own money on completing a study, equipment specification and identified potential suppliers, but the project has been suspended because money from the EU’s New Entrant Reserve fund has dried up. But PGE continues to spend money on CO2 transportation and storage R&D.”

Meanwhile, Poland remains a frequent opponent to EU proposals to cut emissions of carbon dioxide. In April it vetoed for the second time the Commission’s proposed roadmap to cut carbon emissions by 40% on 1990 levels by 2030, 60% by 2040 and 80% by 2050.

It appears unlikely in the longer term that Poland can continue to derail European-wide plans to cut carbon. But Elblag is destined to remain a powerhouse of European coal generation for some time to come.


Tim Probert is a UK-based freelance energy journalist, specializing in the electric power industry. Tim can be contacted at