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Democratization of energy on rise in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina

nadezda kokotovic energy democracy interenef

Nadežda Kokotović (third from the left) with panel moderators at this year's Fifth Split International Energy Forum

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August 31, 2021

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August 31, 2021

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Author: Nadežda Kokotović, Brussels Energy Club Director

The number of local energy communities is on the increase in Croatia as well as the number of citizens directly and actively involved in sustainable energy projects – more and more supported by the state within EU’s legal framework and common practice. Meanwhile, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, people from both entities and all cantons are fighting for protection of rivers and against state’s destructional strategy to promotes investments into small hidro power plants – which appear to be obsolete in this country rich in RES.

At this year’s Fifth Split International Energy Forum one of the panels was dedicated to energy democracy, a new concept that connects the energy transition with democracy and citizen’s participation. As a panel moderator, I spoke with government officials and activists from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For energy democracy proponents, the climate change is not only the biggest threat to our planet, but also an opportunity to start changes in our economies, changes that would “dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge number of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up” (Naomi Klein).

Energy democracy is about clean energy, energy efficiency and nature conservation, bringing in new market participants, such as prosumers, small, local communal electricity plants instead of big energy corporations, and citizen movements that care about sustainable development of their local communities. The European Green Deal is responding to these social requests to a certain extent when it speaks of fighting energy poverty, fair transition, and generally a holistic approach to sustainable future where social dialogue is playing a big role.

The ambitious green plan of Križevci

mario rajn krizevci energy democracy
Mario Rajn (photo: Mario Rajn/Facebook)

Mario Rajn is a mayor of Križevci, a city of 30 thousands in Zagreb’s proximity, and the first one that adopted a development plan with an ambitious goal to achieve energy independence until 2030. Križevci hosted a first small communal solar power plant of 30kwh, financed by a group of citizens, a so called „energy cooperative“ in Croatia (since 2019 they have a legal status in the EU).

Citizens have invested in this community plant in the form of a 10 years’ loan with expected interest of 4,5%. The city’s Development Center is a user of the produced electricity while state electricity utility buys out the surplus.

The City co-finances the solar panels installation at the family houses rooftops

The City also co-finances the solar panels installation at the family houses rooftops, and plans to connect the center of the city with its surrounding villages by green hydrogen buses, use geothermal sources to heat public institutions and improve its solid waste management practice. These plans have helped Mario Rajn get his second term as mayor and he also became the Board member of the Energy Cities, the European association of the cities in energy transition, along with mayor of Modena, Delft, Valencia, Liege and Leuven.

One could also note that Rajn is a third mayor in Croatia that came into power as an independent candidate with the program focused on sustainable development and living: Split has high expectations from its new mayor (or poteštat, as they call this position colloquially there), Ivica Puljak, who got his PhD in physics at Sorbonne. His new peer from Zagreb, Tomislav Tomašević acquired his master degree in the area of sustainable development, in addition to being an environment activist for most of his adult life.

Pioneers of energy cooperatives

zoran kordic zez democratization of energy
Zoran Kordić with colleagues (photo: ZEZ)

Zoran Kordić is a co-founder and a CEO of a Zelena energetska zadruga (ZEZ,  Green Energy Cooperative), which developed that first project in Križevci. The ZEZ had presented this idea to many, but in the beginning, they were welcomed only by Mario Rajn.

ZEZ is also in the business of providing trainings on how to establish an energy cooperative and today many have taken this road. Founders and participants of energy cooperatives have more in common than just an economic interest: they are all motivated by sustainable development of their cities, villages and islands. In addition to energy generation, they are gathered around projects focused on sustainable water, energy and waste management in touristic camps and energy efficiency in agriculture.

Until a couple of years ago, when Croatia fully adapted its legislation to EU’s, ZEZ and other communities were merely surviving, but since then the situation has been improving and now the state treats Zoran and his colleagues as equal partners. ZEZ is also a member of the ResCoop, the European federation of citizen energy cooperatives, a key promoter of this concept in Europe that gathers some 1900 cooperatives with 1,25 million active citizens.

Small hydro power plants as a coherence factor in Bosnia and Herzegovina

anes podic eko akcija shpp democratization of energy
Anes Podić (photo: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Sarajevo/Facebook)

Anes Podić from Bosnian environmental NGO „Eko akcija“ spoke about their struggle against small hydro power plants (SHPPs) and the catastrophic impact they have on rivers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this country 108 SHPPs have been built so far – producing only 2,2% of total electricity (for comparison, one wind park there has produced the same quantity as 57 SHPPs). In 2019 BiH generated 40% of its electricity from RES, mostly large hydro power plants, while in the global greenhouse gas emissions its share is only 0,075%.

The state still plans to construct a couple of hundreds of these projects

Due to state aid and favorable prices, the state still plans to construct a couple of hundreds of these projects, while completely neglecting other sources of renewable energy, richly available in this country. In spite of the existing legal framework that stipulates maintenance of so-called biological minimum, SHPPs are draining last drops of river waters, destroying flora and fauna, economies of local communities, and tens of kilometers of roads are being built through intact woods.

The protests have been held all over the country, with protesters ignoring the internal division and problems, maintaining day and night guard shifts and courageously confronting investors’ bulldoggers. The grassroot organizations are crowdfunding for legal battles and their activists are very much present in media, advocating for urgent and permanent ban on SHPPs construction. Their position is that SHPPs should be excluded from the state aid programs, and instead energy transition finance programs should be established with a view of needs and limits of the Bosnian society and nature.

Efforts of environmental activities are being fruitful and every day there are news of another municipality that has forbidden construction of SHPPs on its territory

Besides, EU’s Water Framework Directive and EU Birds and Habitats Directive have never been transposed into national legislations and neither they are part of the Energy Community Treaty. Their full application would mitigate the effect of these projects. Efforts of environmental activities are being fruitful and every day there are news of another municipality that has forbidden construction of SHPPs on its territory. Still, the horrible effects of ongoing projects cannot be reversed.

Although panelists from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have different challenges and opportunities, what brings them together is their common wish to manage their natural resources on their own, in a clean and responsible way, but also their common obstacles that slow them down mostly: apathy and ignorance in their society.

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nadezda kokotovic energy democracy interenef

Democratization of energy on rise in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina

31 August 2021 - At this year's Fifth Split International Energy Forum one of the panels was dedicated to energy democracy, a new concept that connects the energy transition with democracy and citizen's participation.