University classes to go online as energy crisis deepens

Facing massive hikes in electricity prices in 2023, Polish universities are putting plans in place to switch to online lectures and cut access to facilities on weekends, but they remain hopeful the government will step in to help ease at least some of the burden.

Poland is bracing itself for an unprecedented energy crisis brought upon the country of 38 million people by Russia’s war against Ukraine which has pushed up commodity prices, including coal. Despite more recent investment in renewable sources of energy, coal remains the staple fuel of Poland’s electricity generation.

Expensive coal and gas are inflating electricity prices – and not only because of the war. Generating electricity from emissions-heavy coal requires Polish electricity utilities to pay extra to cover the purchase of carbon dioxide emission permits, with their price hovering around €70 (US$68) per tonne for a year now and triple its cost in 2020.

The end result is that Polish electricity prices – as they apply to supply in 2023 – are currently at around PLN1,100-1,300 (US$220-260) per kilowatt-hour on the Polish Power Exchange, TGE. That is between three and four times the supply contracts rate for 2022.

Locally, the hikes could be even more precipitous as energy distribution and retail companies add on their own costs and margins.

700% increase in costs

Poland’s oldest university, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, is facing a 700% increase in its electricity supply bill next year. In nominal terms, the university will need to find PLN182 million (US$36 million) to cover its electricity bills next year, compared to PLN27 million (US$5 million) in 2022.

“I have been working at the university for over 40 years, but I do not remember rectors [of Polish universities] talking in such dramatic terms about how their schools are going to work,” Jagiellonian University Rector Jacek Popiel said recently as he inaugurated the university’s 659th academic year.

“We need to develop a savings programme as soon as possible … but even with maximum savings, we will not be able to bear the burden of increasing prices of energy and other utilities without a significant increase in subsidies,” Popiel added.

The Jagiellonian University has an emergency plan, involving a switch to online classes to begin on specific dates … [in] October, continuing until January at least. The university is also considering dropping Fridays from its work schedule.

The Jagiellonian University hopes that the massive hike in the cost of electricity will not ultimately come to pass and has not fully accepted it yet, hoping that the government will offer relief for entities like universities, as it has for households.

Scaling down

All Polish universities face similar challenges and are responding with scaling down activities on the campuses.

The University of Bialystok has plans for online lectures and classes lasting a full month, between 7 January and 6 February, as the university also faces a 700% electricity bill hike.

The University of Gdansk is to reduce lighting on its campus, turn down heating, and will delay construction of a sports centre.

The Catholic University of Lublin is mulling the idea of restricting students to fewer buildings to keep lights off – literally – elsewhere.

Some universities say they have energy-saving programmes in place that will hopefully mean they will not need to compromise their activities.

“We are going to be affected by higher electricity prices just like other universities will,” says Anna Modzelewska, a spokeswoman for the University of Warsaw.

But, she adds, no immediate changes to schedules such as moving lectures online are being planned, at least for the moment. Instead, work is underway to achieve a sustained drop in energy use.

“Heat pumps, photovoltaic panels and energy-saving LED lighting are installed. [The university’s] historic buildings are also equipped with systems like ventilation with heat recovery,” Modzelewska added. Such long-term solutions are not uncommon in other universities across Poland.

Government support

The government has assured universities and science institutes of its support in the face of the proposed electricity price hikes.

“I am going to stand by the universities and bring down the absurd energy prices proposed for the next year,” the Minister of Education and Science Przemyslaw Czarnek said at the University of Rzeszów at the inauguration of a new academic year on 3 October.

Support for ‘vulnerable users’

The government is currently hammering out the details of a law that will support so-called ‘vulnerable users’ of energy, including higher education institutions and science institutes, the ministry said.

The details are expected around mid-October, the government’s spokesman Piotr Müller told parliament on 7 October. The new law will then have to pass both houses of parliament before being signed off by the president, which, realistically, will take at least two weeks.

Some academics are worried that if the universities end up paying so much more for electricity – but also for other services like heating – and even partly implement some of the sweeping changes to schedules and limit access to infrastructure and amenities on campuses, it will have a lasting, damaging impact on university life.

“We’re supposed to get published in international journals, yet we can’t afford electricity?” said Andrzej W Nowak, a professor of philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.

“After the pandemic, it now looks as if a new factor driving the decay of university life is about to arrive. So we’re going to turn down heating and close libraries on weekends and we’re not even talking about the university’s public role anymore,” Nowak said.

“I can see it in conversations with friends at the university that they’re all afraid we’re going back to online work. It’s reducing our work to just writing texts from home at the expense of the university’s less-tangible functions that only happen when people actually meet,” he added.