Foreign investments transform once coal-rich Polish region

March 11th, 2009 - 11:31 am ICT by IANS  

By Dominika Maslikowski
Gliwice (Poland), March 11 (DPA) The Gliwice mine in southern Poland no longer produces the coal that made the region known as an industrial powerhouse during communism. The mine’s smoky bricks have been polished to a lively orange, and its interior renovated to house a business and education centre with a state-of-the-art lecture hall.

The city’s mayor, Zygmunt Frankiewicz, says Gliwice is a symbol of the changes in the coal-rich Silesia region, and a sign pointing to the province’s dynamic future.

After the collapse of traditional steel and coal mining industries, Gliwice was one of the region’s poorest cities. Then in the late 1990s it experienced an economic boom when US auto giant GM became its first investor and some 60 others followed. Today it

boasts investments worth more than 2 billion euros.

“The transformation is still happening, but most changes have already been made,” Frankiewicz said. “We were aware that heavy industry was a big setback and we had to help transformation by pulling in investors.”

Mining is still the backbone of the Silesia region, with coal providing 94 percent of Poland’s energy and some 117,000 jobs. Poland is Europe’s biggest coal producer. In the south, coal mining is a powerful tradition and way of life.

Some 30 mines were shut down after communism fell in 1989, but officials say Silesia remains wealthy and today makes up nearly 20 percent of Poland’s gross domestic product.

The effects of the financial crisis have been little felt there, officials say, because mine closures forced the region to diversify and look for investors to compensate for losses.

Recently the district hosted the Economic Forum Silesia, a three-day meeting on investment opportunities that attracted some 600 people from nearly 60 countries.

Officials are now hoping to profit off clean coal technology and draw a mix of industries to the region to keep the financial crisis at bay.

The changes in Silesia are fuelled in part by the European Union, which in December 2007 approved a plan that by 2020 will cut Poland’s carbon dioxide pollution to 20 percent below 1990 levels.

The EU is also planning to put money into clean coal technology, adding another incentive for Silesia to go green.

Officials in the region say Silesia has potential to become the centre of clean coal technology and research.

“The ideal solution would be clean coal technology and if that would be Silesia’s focus,” Frankiewicz said. “Because this is where the coal is.”

The EU also plans to spend at least 3 billion euros to fund 12 experimental “carbon capture and storage” plants, which would pump CO2 from coal-fired power station underground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.

Some may wonder if “Silesia is still going to be about coal”, said Jerzy Buzek, member of the European Parliament, but others already call it “the capital of clean energy in Europe” that could profit off green technology because of its location.

“The EU plans to invest a good amount in clean coal technology, and we could really profit from that. Silesia has a great location…,” Buzek said. “We’re building a base for clean energy that can flow from Silesia to the rest of Europe.”

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