In the Balkans, clean energy needn’t have a dark side

The global transition to clean energy is upending markets, social structures, laws, and much more that falls outside of the traditional energy sector. Since we’re all relatively new at it, it’s critical that we keep a close eye on the biproducts and unintended consequences of climate protection – in order to tweak and reform when necessary. Paul Hockenos takes a look at how dams in the Balkans, while renewable, are anti-environmental.

Renwable engery like hyro power plants can include hidden effects on nature once they are not thought through

EU requirements for renewables have sparked a giant boom in dam construction (Public Domain)

This isn’t an indictment of all renewable energy expansion, as critics have it when there’s a mess; on the contrary, it’s a work in progress, a journey to somewhere we’ve never been, and there’ll be cause to improvise along the way.

There’s no better example than the Balkans where EU requirements for renewables in national power mixes has sparked a giant boom in dam construction on rivers that will soon host new hydroelectric power plants. Environmentalists say that the construction of about 2,800 hydro plants (they’ve counted) from Slovenia to Greece – many very small, generating fewer than 10 megawatts of electricity – is planned for the years ahead. Some are already under construction, even in protected national parks.

The scandal is that the dams are going up on some of Europe’s last pristine rivers, in regions that abound in other sources of clean energy. Reports attest that the Balkan Peninsula is a veritable Shangri-La for renewables with its abundant year-around sun, wind-blown coasts, geothermal hot spots, and thick forests. These resources are all largely untapped. Numerous studies show that the Croatian islands can all meet their energy needs and then some from local sources, primarily in terms of solar power. The Balkans, say experts, could even serve as a “battery” for northern Europe by both exporting green energy and using its mountains for storing electricity.

The defilement of the rivers was brought to light by the communities who live and work along the waterways. Quite suddenly, they say, without any warning or consultation, tractors and loading shovels appeared on the banks of their rivers with legal permission to proceed. Some communities, in Albania, Bosnia, Slovenia, and elsewhere, either blocked the construction with their bodies or went to court to stop the destruction of the habitat and sources of their drinking water. At first, it was fishermen, rafting companies, ornithologists and other hobbyists who joined the locals. But since then, the destruction of Europe’s last wild rivers become an international cause led by the NGOs River Watch and EcoNatur, as well as Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, which leads the Blue Heart of Europe campaign.

The rush to dam and build happened when investors, both regional and foreign, pounced on the subsidies that the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), a multilateral developmental investment bank financed by 64 countries, and others including the EU and World Bank were providing for renewable energy generation in the region – let us assume, with the best intentions. The object was to lower greenhouse gas emissions in a region that relies heavily on coal. The grants weren’t specifically designated for hydroelectric projects but hydropower qualified for the money. In the Balkans, developers know dams and hydroelectric because socialist Yugoslavia was chock full of them. (Many of the regional countries already obtain a sizeable share of their electricity from hydro plants.)

Moreover, note activists like Victor Bjelić of the Center for Environment, a Bosnian group based in the city of Banja Luka, dams are just the kind of thing that corrupt developers and politicos like to sink their teeth into – the quantities of materials used are often unclear, tenders can be bought, etc. Inevitably, he says, when the monies are gone, the developers pick up and go, leaving only the mess of a half-finished dam behind—the damage done and irreparable.

Patagonia’s Blue Heart coalition and the watchdog NGO, Bankwatch, have zeroed in on the investment banks, such as the EBRD which provides credit largely to private companies investing in development projects. As of last year, the EBRD, the largest renewable energy investor in the region, was investing 240 million euros in 51 hydropower plants in the western Balkans. The bank also finances fossil fuel-fired power projects — though no longer coal-fired generation — as well as energy efficiency programs, and wind and solar plants.

But the Blue Heart campaign put the EU and EBRD under pressure and got results: The EBRD says it’s no longer investing in new hydroelectric projects in the region. Bravo!

Yet still, says Ulrich Eichelmann of River Watch, subsidies and private loans “are the root of the problem. They make it very profitable for investors, both small and large, and even those with no record of energy investment, to invest in hydropower.”

“Finance institutes must face up to their responsibilities in times of climate change and overexploitation of natural resources,” says Theresa Schiller of EuroNatur. “We call on international as well as private banks to withdraw from financing hydropower on Balkan rivers in order to preserve this unique European natural heritage.”

The Save the Blue Heart of Europe coalition is currently developing a map of ”no-go zones“ for environmental protection in the region, which will include 80,000 km of rivers and take into account endangered and endemic fish species, significant flood plains and protected areas. The first European River Summit, which will bring together all of the Blue Heart campaign international participants, will be held in Sarajevo this year on September 27-29.

The roots of this obscene predicament in the Balkans is the legal code that stimulates investment in hydropower and the willingness of international funders to support it. These policies were originally created with the climate in mind, but the environmental fallout isn’t worth the minimal gain (dams themselves have large carbon footprints.) The sooner the laws are modified, the same finance and attention can be turned to the plentiful zero-carbon resources in the region, and the sooner the people there will benefit from renewables – with their rivers intact, a gift for them and their visitors to enjoy.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

1 Comment

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