Maciej Rawluk, Elektrownia Bełchatów
Everything we do, every activity, action or relationship can be described as the exchange of energy. According to the principle of conservation of energy, it can change its form, e.g. from potential to kinetic or from kinetic to thermal. In coal-fired power plants, chemical energy is converted into electricity. Electricity, in turn, enables the operation of machines, kettles, computers and many other devices. They all also emit energy in the form of heat that is given off to the atmosphere. When cooking dinner, using a computer or lighting the streets, we heat up the surroundings. Energy is invisible, but without its constant flow, our civilization would cease to exist. The omnipresence and ease of access to the power grid seems so apparent that we do not give thoughts to the origin of electricity and related issues. Direct costs of this state of affairs are monthly bills, but there are also indirect costs, which include the deterioration of the environment and the resulting threats to our health. The effects of emissions of pollutants, which are a by-product of energy consumption, are not jointly and severally borne. Environmental justice organizations report that certain social groups are more vulnerable to the dangers of air pollution. Access to energy determines the development of civilization, but the methods of obtaining it can be deadly for the environment and, consequently, also for people. While solar energy is the primary source of energy for the natural ecosystem, people obtain it mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. Our activity disrupts the biogeochemical cycle of carbon, consisting in the circulation of this element and its relationships between living organisms and the non-living environment. The natural cycle of carbon in nature consists of biological, chemical and physical processes as a result of which there is a continuous exchange of this element in the atmosphere and hydrosphere, living organisms, their remains and the Earth’s crust. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have influenced the balance of these processes towards an increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. In addition, deforestation of large areas (one tree processes 22 kg of CO2 per year) and greenhouse gas emissions have caused a spiral of processes responsible for global warming. The decarbonisation of the energy sector has been obvious since 1988, when climatologist James E. Hansen first drew attention to the dangers of global warming. Already in May 1989, the Parliament of the (then) People’s Republic of Poland passed that: “maintaining hard coal extraction at the current level – due to the growing costs of extraction and the need to improve the working conditions of miners, as well as due to environmental protection – should not be taken into account.” ¹
While in 2017, every third kilowatt-hour produced in Germany came from renewable sources in Poland, about 75% of electricity still comes from coal combustion, with Polska Grupa Górnicza being the largest mining company in the EU. Bełchatów, the largest lignite power plant, has a capacity of 5 gigawatts, covering almost 20% of Poland’s electricity demand. The production of 1 kilowatt hour in a coal-fired power plant emits 850 kg of CO2. Poland is one of the five EU countries where coal is still mined, but our share is 86%. The remaining coal comes from the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain and Spain. Europe is the only area where coal mining is falling down and with an effective policy to reduce CO2 emissions. Over the past 18 years, China has increased its coal production 2.6 times and India 2 times. The general situation on a national and global scale (the Earth is a closed system) seems extremely complicated. In April 2020, the largest bulk carrier served in Polish ports, Agia Trias (Holy Trinity), called at the northern port of Gdansk, bringing 123,000 tons of coal. This is not due to the lack of coal in Poland but to its price. The resources of this raw material are still growing, although the production is gradually decreasing. In 2020, 7 million tons of coal was deposited on the dumps belon-ging to coal mining companies. In 2019, 61.6 million tons left the Polish mines – over 20 million tons less than in 2008 (83.6). In 2019, 83.2 thousand people were employed in the mining industry – this number is gradually growing – in 2017 it amounted to 82.7 thou-sand.
A radical reduction in the use of fossil fuels or the capture of greenhouse gases before they enter the atmosphere seems a necessity. Air pollution has been defined by the WHO as one of the five harmful long-term health factors. In the USA, 102,000 people die prematurely due to the inhalation of PM 2.5 dust from anthropogenic sources. In Poland, environmental contamination as a cause of death ranks second after tobacco smoking. Air quality is a factor that acts universally and independent of our will, therefore the improvement of the situation depends primarily on the state policy and our collective activity. Unfortunately, currently numerous economic, social and political processes seem to perpetuate the unfavorable situation for the environment. There are only about 300 air pollution testing stations in Poland (one per thousand square kilometers) – less than in one German state. The lack of clearly defined and long-term plans of the government in this regard causes concern and provokes spontaneous actions. Situation awareness and a common understanding of cultural, technical and social mechanisms seem to be crucial for taking action to save the environment, our lifestyle and civilization. Only universal pressure from society can bring about change. No energy process is 100% efficient, so a large part of the energy we pro-duce is dissipated into the environment. Photography is a medium that expands our perceptive possibilities. Using special techniques, we can register and reveal phenomena that are inaccessible to the sense of sight. You can also the heat in a photo. Films sensitive to infrared radiation found their first application to reveal camouflaged military objects. They were used to reveal what we cannot see with our naked eye. The registration of the spectrum invisible to the naked eye allows you to pay attention to non-obvious aspects of energy production, flow and consumption. The landscapes made on the negatives of “IR” seem unreal, reveal strangeness and in a metaphorical way indicate the reluctance to face a real threat, indicate an internal conflict. The photographs reveal what is monumental but invisible because it is outside the realm of our everyday experience – an industrial landscape that is a testimony to macro-scale activities related to energy production and fossil fuel processing. The description of phenomena in a visual form allows to give voice to inhuman social actors and draw attention to phenomena that are elusive in verbal narratives.
The cycle was created in the years 2019-2020 in Poland, the role of which in the European production of CO2 is of key importance.
1 Qutoed from B.Derski and R. Zasuń, „Wiek energetyków”, Warsaw, 2018, p. 248
Artists: Marek Domański, Maciej Rawluk