When Roman Kaczmarczyk became mayor of Ladek-Zdroj in 2014, he envisioned a field outside the town full of solar panels instead of wheat. People thought he was crazy.
At a time when renewable energy was still uncharted territory for most of the country, Kaczmarczyk pledged to turn the small spa town near the Czech border into Poland's first energy self-sufficient community.
This, he argued, would kill two birds with one stone: It would cut the town's dreadful air pollution as well as its high energy costs.
Kaczmarczyk, a computer engineer and economist by profession, has lived among Ladek-Zdroj's 5,500 residents almost all of his life. Day-in, day-out in the cold season, he and his fellow townspeople had to inhale harsh, sulfurous air.
As in many Polish towns, most heating systems in Ladek-Zdroj still burn oil, coal, wood and even garbage. Every year, the once brightly painted houses sported a fresh gray layer of soot, becoming darker and darker.
The smog was anathema to the town's image as a health resort — its most lucrative economic sector. Tourists complained bitterly about the foul air.
Today, Ladek-Zdroj boasts its own photovoltaic solar farm with 20 rows of solar panels spread out over an 11-hectare (27-acre) field.
Kaczmarczyk says that the project has been a huge success across the board: The town now has cleaner air, cheaper electricity and is well on its way to becoming independent of the national power supply.
A true local initiative
The energy cooperative in Ladek-Zdroj — one of 22 energy communities in Poland — began operating in September 2023. The three founding members were the town's largest municipal enterprises. Cooperative members receive zero-carbon clean energy directly from the solar farm at a third of the utility's rate and only pay for grid use.
In 2024, the collective will accept new members from the town and nine nearby villages. Companies and private households can acquire shares for €227 ($243) apiece, plus a single payment of the same amount to join the cooperative.
What's more, all municipal buildings in Ladek-Zdroj are now 100% powered by local green energy.
Despite the obvious benefits of the initiative, the mayor still has difficulty explaining the model to some of Ladek-Zdroj's citizens, who would prefer better roads and other infrastructure to solar panels. "There's a lack of conviction that the cooperative works," he says.
Lack of legislation for energy communities
When Kaczmarczyk started planning the project, he realized that the Polish government was unprepared for something so unique. Cooperatives were the responsibility of the agriculture ministry and could therefore only be set up in rural areas.
Ladek-Zdroj's mayor was rather lucky, says Krzysztof Smolnicki of Fundacja Ekorozwoju, an environmental foundation in Wroclaw. "There's no legislation for self-organized energy collectives and renewable energy prosumers in Poland," he told DW.
Although solar panels are booming in Poland, it's still impossible to form renewable energy clusters and cooperatives in cities. "Large cooperatives should be encouraged in city suburbs, public buildings like schools, hospitals, and municipal buildings, instead of rural areas," said Smolnicki.
No regulatory framework
During the rule of the previous government, Poland failed to establish a regulatory environment for renewable energy collectives. Ireneusz Perkowski, a Polish energy cluster and cooperative pioneer, criticizes the old government for not providing a regulatory framework.
"It was generally considered that the laws for incentives and metering methods would be applied in the municipalities, not in the ministries, as clusters and collectives were bottom-up initiatives. But this never happened," Perkowski told DW.
High hopes for the new government
After eight years under an archconservative government that was skeptical about climate change and renewable energy, Kaczmarczyk now hopes to be able to access national funding at last.
Poland's new, more liberal coalition government has declared that it will boost green energy and replace coal by 2040. And indeed, Kaczmarczyk has recently tapped into a new investment program for energy collectives to enlarge the town's solar farm tenfold.
EU funding for renewables
While there was little funding available at national level for those interested in setting up an energy cooperative, Kaczmarczyk was able to get funding for a variety of other green projects in the town from the European Union, a significant source of renewable energy financing for Poland.
Last year, the European Commission approved approximately €60 billion in grants and loans for Poland to support, among other things, the country's green transition.
Numerous green projects in the town
Kaczmarczyk is adamant that the innovations reduce energy consumption and air pollution.
Thanks to EU grants, the town's streetlights were fitted with LEDs, public buildings were insulated, and gas heating, heat pumps and infrared panels replaced 182 coal-fired heating systems.
In 2018, explorational geothermal drilling began. What's more, the town now has an energy-efficient preschool — a model project in Poland — and a smart smog-monitoring system linked to the mayor's smartphone.
Just the beginning
Kaczmarczyk is now an energy expert of sorts himself and shares his knowledge in forums, expert panels and conferences across Poland.
If the people of Ladek-Zdroj vote him out of office, he says, he'll be crestfallen, of course. But should that happen, he would consider acting as a consultant to other Polish cities interested in purifying their air and generating their own power.
According to Kaczmarczyk, the transformation in Poland has just begun.
Edited by: Paul Hockenos, Rüdiger Rossig and Aingeal Flanagan
This article is part of a five-part series on energy communities in the European Union conducted with the support of Journalismfund Europe.