With its new biomass-fired cogeneration plant and the ongoing reconstruction and expansion of the district heating network that it supplies, Gjakova, a city in Kosovo’s west, has set an example for municipal authorities in the Balkans in switching to sustainable district energy technology.
The energy sector is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions and a heavy polluter. While the switch of electricity production to cleaner technologies is gaining pace, heating is more challenging. Similar to the rest of the Western Balkans, Kosovo* is still mostly dependent on traditional fuels: wood, fuel oil and coal.
Moreover, only three cities have district heating, with mostly old pipes and substations, which break down a lot. The government in Prishtina is yet to assess the potential for high-efficiency cogeneration and efficient district heating and cooling.
But the enthusiasm of the local authority in Gjakova (Đakovica in Serbian) and its district heating firm is already moving the needle with the introduction of biomass and the modernization and expansion of the network. The project is a blueprint for other municipal units in Kosovo* for the energy transition in the sector.
First thin white smoke instead of clouds of soot
The District Heating Co. of Gjakova/Đakovica – Ngrohtorja e Qytetit Gjakova in Albanian – now operates a biomass cogeneration plant instead of the old facility, which was in the city center and ran on fuel oil. The combined heat and power (CHP) system was built using European funds.
The first thin white smoke that came out of the chimneys when the plant was put into operation last year marked a victory for the city and the local community and all the people that contributed to enabling better district heating and cleaner air.
The endeavor drew interest from municipal authorities across Kosovo*, motivating them to turn to sustainable technologies. It earned District Heating Co. a place among the Energy Transition Champions in the Western Balkans, promoted by Balkan Green Energy News.
The old heating plant worked for just eight to 12 hours per day
“We managed to overcome difficulties that arose with the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, the war in Ukraine, with just minor delays in project implementation. Our great team did a very important job for Kosovo*. The old heating plant worked for just eight to 12 hours per day, so the benefits of 24-hour working regime are obvious for households and our other customers in Gjakova. But there is also the advantage regarding the environment, together with job opportunities in the biomass supply chain,” the utility’s Chief Executive Officer Albana Skivjani said.
The government is currently subsidizing the purchases of biomass, she added. However, next winter the utility should be able to cover its expenditures alone, according to Skivjani. Calculated for a 24-hour heat supply from biomass, costs are 50% lower than they would be for fuel oil, she explained.
District heating projects were funded with EU and Swiss grants
The first step was the feasibility study, funded with a EUR 600,000 grant through the European Union’s Western Balkans Investment Framework (WBIF). It was completed in 2015. The conclusion was the future plant should be fueled with woodchips from forestry residues and the waste from wood processing and vine pruning.
The EU provided EUR 15 million in total for the facility, which consists of two heat-only boilers, one combined heat and power unit and two heat storage spaces. Total heat production capacity is 15 MW and the cogeneration system also generates up to 1.1 MW of electricity.
Heat meters will enable customers to control consumption and pay accordingly
The district heating upgrade doesn’t stop there. Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs – SECO provided a EUR 4.5 million grant for the modernization and expansion of the network, while the Municipality of Gjakova participates with EUR 500,000. The works are close to 90% done.
All substations are equipped with heat meters which will enable the introduction of a billing system and enable customers to pay in accordance with their consumption.
SECO granted another EUR 800,000 for the rehabilitation of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in the Regional Hospital Isa Grezda. A total of nine public buildings have been connected to the heating network. It now serves 30,000 people or 40% of the population of the municipality in Kosovo’s west.
Hardships led to improvements in management
The construction of the biomass plant began in January 2020, just ahead of the first lockdowns in Europe. The activities were soon halted, says Vladislav Pavićević, Project Management Team Leader from Egis, which was selected as the supervision authority. “Despite the Covid-19 challenge, our team managed to cope with pandemic rapidly and we resumed the works shortly,” project’s Team Leader pointed out.
The supplier, Urbas Maschinenfabric from Austria, succeeded in manufacturing and delivering the equipment in the middle of the pandemic.
“The first heating season with the new system started only slightly later than usual and planned, in November, and this is a huge success of the whole team devotedly working on this project,” Pavićević concluded. The network was just partly reconstructed at the time, but this year it is in a good condition.
We need clean air, affordable fuel
The new cogeneration plant was installed outside of town, which helps reduce air pollution. In any case, emissions are line with the EU’s Medium Combustion Plant Directive.
“We need clean air and we need affordable fuel,” says Lendita Gashi, Energy Program Manager in the EU Office in Kosovo*. She asserted that the switch to biomass also boosts economic activity. The feasibility study showed one hundred jobs would be created in the biomass supply chain for the combined heat and power plant.
Purchases of woodchips from quality wood would make the Gjakova district heating system environmentally unsustainable
As for challenges, Gashi warned of the risk of getting biomass from quality wood instead of sanitation harvest – forestry waste, which would make the system unsustainable. Next, she pointed to the energy crisis and fuel shortages, saying that the price of woodchips doubled and that there aren’t enough woodchips yet in the market for a steady supply.
WBIF funded a feasibility study for the construction of district heating systems based on renewables in eight cities in Kosovo*, she noted. It is scheduled to be completed by mid-2023, after which further steps are needed regarding mobilizing financing for implementation with the European Investment Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and other international financing institutions, Gashi revealed.
Not long before other cities introduce sustainable district energy systems
The capital Prishtina, which is already turning to solar thermal technology, and North Mitrovica (Kosovska Mitrovica) are the only other cities with district heating facilities.
What is the next planned move for the authorities of the seventh-largest city in Kosovo* and the utility?
“It is important to secure the local market for the summer period, so that the new plant can work throughout the year. We are working on the start of production of thermal energy for sanitary water for the hospital and other potential customers,” CEO Skivjani said. She suggested that investments are needed to expand the network and the energy production capacity.
One of the options for future improvements is solar heating combined with biomass and geothermal energy.