From: Alice Elizabeth Taylor
Disillusionment With Hydropower in the Balkans

The popularity of hydropower in the Balkans is beginning to decrease. With hundreds of new projects planned across the region and investors salivating at the huge water resources available, finally the public sentiment is beginning to change.

Tired of losing vast swathes of protected land and untouched countryside to hydro projects, citizens across the region are starting to protest against proposed plans. In Kosovo, thousands of people protested over plans for a series of hydropower plants on the Lumbardhi River, resulting in Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj ordering an immediate stop to construction pending the outcome of a scale and impact assessment.

Pristina, the capital of the country has pledged to develop the as of yet relatively untapped hydropower potential as it aims to increase its share of renewable energy generation to 25 per cent by 2025. The plans to develop hydropower facilities in national parks has been met with strong opposition and after the Peja protest, the predominantly Serbian municipality of Strpce protested against the construction of a mini hydropower plant in their locality.

At the time of writing there are over 3000 hydropower plants in the pipeline or under construction on rivers between Greece and Slovenia. According to a local NGO, Save the Blue Heart of Europe, protests have taken place in a number of countries with citizens becoming angry and concerned about the environmental impact on protected areas and national parks.

On January 27th, over 6000 people protested in Belgrade over plans to build around 850 plants in the country, 200 of which will be in nature reserves and national parts. Then, in Bosnia, clashes have erupted over plans to construct two plants in the Kruscica area.

But the need to construct these plants is bound to the regions commitment to the Energy Community. With many of these countries being aspiring members of the EU, the have adopted targets to boost their use of renewable energy as a part of their ongoing integration with the EU energy policy.

Albania however, outstrips all other EU member states at present as almost all of its energy is already from hydropower sources, yet environmental groups are not happy about the construction of such plants on untouched rivers such as the Vjosa. Similar proposals to build plants at Holta Canyon near Elbasan have been met with resistance due to to the fact that the area is not only one of outstanding natural beauty, but it is a tourist destination that attracts thousands of visitors every year.

A study conducted in the Western Balkan region at the end of 2018 states that around three quarters of Balkan rivers are considered as ecologically valuable and therefore should be off limits for hydro projects. Unfortunately, around 89 per cent of the 3000 planned projects in the area are all located in such areas.

In Albania, EcoAlbania Riverwatch and EuroNatur filed a complaint against the government over concerns for the Kalivaç and Poçem hydro projects not being in line with Energy Community rules. This is the first complaint of its type in Albania and they are calling on the Energy Community to launch an infringement process against the government.

“This is another step in our long fight against the hydropower projects on the Vjosa River. We are convinced that the Albanian Government is breaking not only Albanian law but also its commitment to the Energy Community. The hydropower projects ‘Kalivaç’ and ‘Poçem’ are not even economically viable, as social and environmental costs are underestimated,” said Olsi Nika from EcoAlbania in a February 26 statement.

Whilst concerned citizens in Albania protest in earnest in the hope that their rivers and canyons can be saved from destruction, there is some hope on the horizon.

In November 2018, a group lead by the India Power Corporation announced that it intends to build a 100MW solar park worth EUR 70 million. A month later, the energy ministry announced that Statkraft, a Norwegian energy company, had applied to build a floating photovoltaic plant in central Albania. Then yesterday, an announcement was made by Voltalia that they had signed a contract for a 2.5MW solar plant to be located in the southwest region of the country with the commissioning date expected to be Q3 2019 at the latest.

Whilst solar power provides a far less intrusive and destructive way of satisfying the country’s power needs, it is hoped that proper impact assessments will be undertaken before installation at each site, and that areas important for nature, tourism, and Albanians are not sacrificed for the sake of profit.