Investors alone have benefits from small hydropower plants – citizens, state and municipalities have none

Photo: BGEN


April 19, 2019






April 19, 2019





The authorities did not consider the possible environmental impact when they lightly issued construction permits for small hydropower plants (SHPPs) and approved incentives for privileged electricity producers. And then the adept investors saw the opportunity to make profits – they lobbied to adjust regulations and, coupled with poor inspection work on the ground, the situation is what it is today: a widespread devastation of small watercourses and the environment is taking place in Serbia, Ratko Ristić, Dean of the University of Belgrade Faculty of Forestry, tells Balkan Green Energy News.

Ristić, author of the university textbook Hydrology of Torrential Watercourses and an erosion and land and water conservation expert, says the arguments for his position are listed in a study of 46 small hydropower plants he has conducted with his team. One of few experts in Serbia considering the environment from a broader social angle, Ristić says that only that which brings benefits to a large number of community members can comply with environmental ethics, noting that it is clear that investors alone have benefits from small hydropower plants.

What is the Serbian rivers’ potential for electricity production, in terms of both large and small hydropower plants?

For the most part, Serbia has already tapped into its major rivers’ hydropower potential. That’s why I would like to draw attention to the need to improve the efficiency of the existing hydropower plants (HPPs), revitalize their equipment, and reduce power losses, which in Serbia stand at 16%-17%, while the EU tolerates power losses of 5% on average.

At the same time, hydropower is being pushed by promoting SHPPs, even though all analyses show that these facilities, as listed in the notorious 1987 cadaster, can produce 2%-3.5% of electricity currently consumed in Serbia annually. Why would we build that many, mostly run-of-river SHPPs? Why pipe 2,200 kilometers of watercourses and seriously disrupt ecosystems along those sections? There are too many negative examples that should prompt us not to allow this.

Wind energy is also often steeped in controversy. The fact is that wind energy, too, carries certain risks for the environment, but the impact is still localized and it would be good to use its potential.

Serbia also has a strong potential for geothermal energy production. I often hear that geothermal energy is not suitable for electricity generation. However, any energy obtained for heating or cooling means saving electricity.

Finally, solar energy should be stimulated, especially for households. Imagine having solar panels on around 100,000 individual residential facilities for hot water alone – so much electricity would be saved. And of course, there should be incentives to improve energy efficiency.

Energy willow can provide biomass for cogeneration facilities across Serbia

According to the existing estimates, biomass is a renewable energy source with the biggest potential in Serbia. However, there are opinions that these estimates are not valid. What is the truth?

Biomass has the largest potential provided all available agricultural and forest biomass is used, while making sure that the need for biomass does not grow into an excuse for unchecked logging, as forests are very important for various ecosystem services. The question is whether the biomass potential estimates are in keeping with forestry management plans – energy cannot be a purpose unto itself. However, we can also turn to energy forestry to produce biomass given that we have 40,000-50,000 hectares of land classified as agricultural and it’s not suitable for agriculture. This land can be used for planting the so-called “energy willow” – Salix viminalis, the Inger variety, which is cultivated in Romania, in the vicinity of Timisoara, on several hundred hectares of land, with an annual yield of 80-100 tonnes per hectare. It could be the source for the production of wood chips or pellets for cogeneration facilities, resulting in zero or minimal greenhouse gas emissions.

What has the SHPP analysis you have conducted shown?

My team and I conducted intense research of 46 run-of-river small hydropower plants from the end of October to mid-December 2018, in the vicinity of Nova Varoš, Kraljevo, Babušnica, Ivanjica and Vlasotince. What did we find? Numerous fish passages are not functioning – there is no water in them, they are blocked by gravel and branches, or fish cannot use them because they can’t jump half a meter upstream! Perhaps the Atlantic salmon can, but these local fish species can’t.

Furthermore, we found that all the water is directed onto the Tyrolian weir screen, leaving no or very little water in the channel. We found some 15-20 SHPPs not to release any water through the water intake, thereby not securing even the controversial minimum flow or environmental flow.

Most of the SHPPs have run-of-river pipelines running through the channel, which is not allowed. The Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia and public water management company Srbijavode issue terms that engineers and contractors must abide by, which means that no pipelines can be placed in floodplains, 2.5-3 meters from the watercourse. However, given that the cheapest thing is to build a pipeline inside the channel, this is being done. On top of that, heavy machinery is brought into the channel, destroying the flora and fauna along stretches several kilometers long. Once water enters the pipeline, the channel for the most part runs dry, which is bad for the flora and fauna and disrupts groundwater recharge, which significantly reduces the discharge of nearby springs.

How did some plants obtain building permits without terms issued by the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia?

And what is utterly unacceptable, the local population’s lives are completely disrupted as people do not have access to sufficient quantities of water in the channel along sections several kilometers long.

Are there any SHPPs whose construction was carried out in line with all the requirements?

There are those with fish passages, but nothing migrates through them – we know this because we would watch for hours. There are plants with pipelines outside floodplains, but they are few and far between.

It is interesting that some plants’ technical documentation we examined did not include terms issued by the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia, or included expired terms. Without these terms, no permit can be obtained. I am not authorized to investigate this, as some services are, but the question remains how these plants were built and who issued the building permits without these terms.

This means it would be enough to examine the documentation of the existing SHPPs to determine where the mistakes were made?

There have been serious administrative oversights! Take the case of Rakita, for example. The investor claims he has done everything in line with regulations. However, no one has asked him who gave him the permit to punch through two flood barriers downstream from the village of Rakita toward the village of Zvonce, which serve for protection against erosion and torrential floods, so that run-of-river pipelines can go through them. No one could have issued a permit for that. The building permit for the Rakita project was issued in late 2017, and the geotechnical study, a prerequisite for obtaining the permit, is from 2018!?

Authorities made serious administrative oversights in approving licences for SHPPs

You have also said that regulations concerning the construction of SHPPs have been adjusted to investors to facilitate construction, at the detriment of the environment and people. How was this done?

For example, the decree on determining the list of projects for which environmental impact assessment is required has been changed to remove the requirement for SHPPs with an installed capacity of less than 2 MW – and most SHPPs have an installed capacity of less than 2 MW. This was done intentionally.

Then, the decree on protection regimes was changed to enable the construction of SHPPs with an installed capacity of up to 5 MW in Category II protected areas. This is contrary to the nature protection concept – it is irrelevant whether the installed capacity is 200 kW or 2 MW: building any dam and pipelines has an adverse impact on the environment.

As a member of the state Revision Commission, I gave a negative opinion on the project to build SHPP Pakleštica on the Visočica river due to the fact that the entire project, the water intake facility and the run-of-river tunnel were planned in the Category II protection zone – despite the fact that there is a decree declaring Mt. Stara Planina a nature park and a decree on protection regimes, banning the construction of new power plants in the Category II protection zone on Stara Planina. Even though these decrees were already in place, the City of Pirot adopted a spatial plan envisaging SHPPs on these locations, and investors are now citing this spatial plan. How is it possible that the City of Pirot is not respecting the Serbian government’s decrees? Luckily, this project has been suspended.

The Ministry of Energy issues energy permits, however, this should be done at the end of the procedure, not at the start

This case opened my eyes on small hydropower plants. The Pakleštica plant was planned in the Vladikine Ploče canyon, an area of outstanding geodiversity with a length of around 3 kilometers. The investor envisaged a Tyrolian weir, a run-of-river tunnel with a diameter of 3 meters and a length of 2-3 meters running to the village of Pakleštica and the powerhouse location. This canyon has been declared a special fish habitat, where spawning takes place. Visočica has an average annual flow of 6.2 cubic meters per second, and the investor envisaged an installed flow of 9.5 cubic meters per second!

At a meeting of the Revision Commission, I called this an example of a narrow-minded engineering approach, as the envisaged run-of-river facility in an area of outstanding geodiversity and the key biodiversity point in that part of Mt. Stara Planina would have left this precious area without water, i.e. the material needed for the renewal of life! My objection was overturned in an 8-to-7 vote. Luckily, as I already said, this project has been halted.

Regulations were changed intentionally to facilitate the construction of SHPPs?

Of course, interest groups and lobbies went through the regulations to identify the obstacles and removed them.

Who is the most responsible for what happened, and who should now do something to avert a further destruction of rivers?

The Municipality of Babušnica is responsible for the Rakita case and the City of Pirot and the Ministry of Construction for the Pakleštica case. Inspection services – the water management, forestry, and environmental inspectorates – also bear a great share of responsibility as they often do not do their jobs. These inspectorates answer to two ministries – of forestry and environmental protection. At the same time, inspectorates often do not have the basic conditions in place to do their jobs.

The Ministry of Energy is also important, as it issues energy permits. However, this should be done at the end of the procedure, when all possible potential impacts are examined, not the way it is done now – at the start of the procedure. I believe this system has been put in place intentionally. There are also the Ministry of Construction and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Water Management. Of course, there is also the Ministry of Environmental Protection, but their hands are often tied.

I have heard investors’ comments – I have talked to some of them and they are affected by my statements. It is interesting that some of them largely agree with my positions. I am not calling out anyone by name, but am speaking out about a visible phenomenon, the public interest of protecting the sensitive ecosystems of mountain rivers and streams. What they are doing is not in the interest of the state or the municipality – it is only in their own interest. Some people are getting angry that someone is registering the consequences. What should I do? Keep quiet?

SHPPs have no ethical justification, the only reason for their construction is the investors’ financial gain

How is it possible that the introduction of subsidies for the construction of SHPPs went unnoticed? It’s as if no one had put two and two together as to how much energy SHPPs can produce and what kind of consequences they can create.

I admit this was unknown. There should have been reactions. I myself did not know. Energy experts, though, had known all along that SHPPs would produce very little electricity. But everything became clearer when construction began.

The national action plan lists all renewable energy sources and does not state an obligation to build SHPPs, however the decision on subsidies was adopted, regulations adjusted, and everything was done very swiftly. Furthermore, they used the cadaster, which is merely a collection of potential locations.

Finally, environmental ethics, part of the environmental philosophy, states that what brings the most benefit to the largest number of a community’s members is acceptable. In our context, it is clear who is the only side to benefit from SHPPs. Large hydropower plants such as Đerdap also have a negative environmental impact, but with a share of 10%-12% of annual electricity production in Serbia, Đerdap benefits millions of citizens. In that sense, it is clear that there is no ethical excuse for the construction of SHPPs – the only reason for their construction is the investors’ financial gain.

A minority has usurped public space on the left bank of the Sava river

The state’s treatment of waters is evident from two examples in Belgrade – the illegal construction on the left bank of the Sava river, but also the reduction of the sanitary protection zone around the Makiš drinking water facility. What does that show?

The left bank of the Sava River, from the Ostružnica bridge to New Belgrade’s blocks, is a flood defense area, as well as a source of drinking water for Belgrade. If regulations were to be applied, nothing could be built there. Fences are built around such facilities elsewhere in the world to prevent access to them, and here, you have all sorts of facilities built in the area, including houses, parking lots, villas… If there should be a floodwater surge on the Sava, these facilities will increase the hydraulic roughness, which means the flow will be slowed down and this could result in floodwater flowing over the embankment built to protect New Belgrade. This bank area is an area of public interest and it is unacceptable for anyone to build residential facilities there. What are we demonstrating by allowing this? That all citizens are equal or that some are more equal than others? Usurping public space is not social justice.

The situation is similar with some 300 hectares of land excluded from the Makiš sanitary protection zone and converted into a construction zone under strange circumstances. This can potentially jeopardize the quality of drinking water supplied to Belgrade.

How will climate change affect Serbia’s potential of renewables?

The effects of climate change in Southeastern Europe (SEE) is something we should all be concerned about. This part of Europe, especially Serbia and North Macedonia, are territories where the most explicit and worst effects of climate change will be seen on a global scale, in terms of rising mean annual temperatures, longer droughts, changed precipitation patterns in the vegetation period – with intense precipitation causing floods, decreasing amounts of snowfall and fewer long, lower-intensity rainfalls that are the most useful. We can already see forests drying at 800-1,000 meters above sea level.

According to models developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and some of Serbian experts, for example professor Vladimir Đurđević, PhD, of the Faculty of Physics, Serbia’s mean annual temperature is expected to rise by 4.5-5.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, which will have a terrible impact on forest ecosystems. There is a real danger of large forest complexes disappearing, which also means the disappearance of biomass, but even more so uncontrollable erosion processes, frequent torrential floods, and a loss of biodiversity. Not only the energy sector will be affected – we will have a civilizational problem.

Climate change in the period from 1985 to 2014 resulted in temperature in Serbia increasing by 1.2 degrees Celsius. What is also evident is a disruption of the hydrological regime of small watercourses compared to the period 25-30 years ago. I have conducted measurements along many of these watercourses and found an evident decrease of water quantities and frequent drying in the summer period.

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