Location, location, location: How spatial planning can accelerate the renewable energy transition in Southeast Europe

Location spatial planning accelerate renewable energy transition Southeast Europe features Zeljka Fistrek Dragana Mileusnic

Photo: EIHP, TNC


April 9, 2021






April 9, 2021





Authors: Željka Fištrek, Senior Researcher at Department for Renewable Energy Sources, Climate and Environmental Protection, Energy Institute Hrvoje Požar, and Dragana Mileusnić, Southeast Europe Programme Director, The Nature Conservancy

To accelerate renewables deployment in Southeast Europe, governments and industry should work with environmental NGOs and local communities from the get-go. The latest report by Energy Institute Hrvoje Požar (EIHP) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) translates stakeholders’ views into visual spatial planning tools to identify locations that yield high electricity generation, while minimizing harmful impacts on people and the environment.

As renewables dominate power production across Europe, this powerful trend is being felt in Southeast Europe, too. In the past this has meant surging interest in hydropower development, yet solar and wind energy are now catching up. However, not all proposed projects have been realised due to growing environmental and social opposition, triggered by poor project planning and execution and lack of communication between project promotors and governments on one side, and local communities and environmentalists, on the other.

Since further expansion of wind and solar projects is expected, to secure communities’ support towards future projects, governments, investors and developers should plan for and invest in projects in locations where the undesirable impacts on the environment and competition for site and resources (primarily land) is minimal.

Location spatial planning can accelerate renewable energy transition Southeast Europe
Photo: Solar plant in Slovenia (EIHP)

Bridging the divide among governments, industry, local communities and NGOs

To accelerate much-needed renewable energy deployment, we need not only a constructive dialogue among project promotors, governments, local communities, and environmentalists; we also need tools that can integrate their views into renewable energy planning. This can be done by overlaying solar and wind resource potential with mapped social and environmental sensitivities. The ideal outcome is a set of locations that are accepted by local people and environmentalists and yet, also capable of generating high electricity yields.

As a global environmental non-profit, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is applying this approach globally. In Southeast Europe, TNC has been collaborating with the Energy Institute Hrvoje Požar (EIHP) to identify pathways for siting renewables with the highest ecological and social safeguards. We tested this approach in Zadar county, Croatia.

In practice: Zadar county case study

Zadar county was selected as an ideal location for the case study to test our approach due to its rich renewable energy potential and high biodiversity values (around half of its surface area forms part of the European Union’s Natura 2000 ecological network). Not to mention, the importance of tourism for the county’s economy.

The results of this analysis estimated that the total suitable area, which minimizes impact to people and nature while harnessing energy generation potential, for potential solar development amounted to 22,529 ha, and 8,451 hectares for wind. With some conservative assumptions, these locations translate to approximately 1.1 GW of solar and wind potential. The amount of low conflict solar and wind potential in Zadar county alone, could generate up to 52% of Croatia’s total 2030 solar and wind targets for the country.

How spatial planning accelerate renewable energy transition Southeast Europe

estimate potential Zadar County pilot

The estimate potential Zadar County pilot
Photos: Estimated potential for renewables siting in Zadar county pilot (EIHP, Integrated Renewable Energy Planning in Southeast Europe, Pilot project: Integrated Wind and Solar Planning in Zadar county, 2021)

How did we get there? Step one: stakeholder engagement

We approached experts in the field of nature protection, landscape and spatial planning, and natural resource management to capture and incorporate environmental and social sensitivities to be conserved. We used expert consultations and peer review workshops to gather input for the analysis’ methodology and criteria or values that can be spatially represented and best reflect stakeholders’ views and concerns. While inputs from nature protection experts (NGOs and institutions) was robust and exceeded the researchers’ expectations, the participation from land-use and natural resource experts, namely the agriculture and forestry institution, was lacking. Smart renewable energy planning clearly necessitates cross-sectoral stakeholder engagement and cooperation, and this should be improved if the methodology would be applied at the national level.

Step two: sensitivity mapping

The sensitivity analysis utilised 22 datasets based on Zadar county’s prevailing state of the environment, biodiversity characteristics, land use patterns, and the social and cultural features to produce five sensitivity zones for development of solar and wind power projects. It is important to keep in mind that the areas designated as low sensitivity are not necessarily de facto “go areas” for development. Regardless of the level of sensitivity, all projects still must undergo standard Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) procedures. Spatial planners, investors and nature protection agencies can use these maps to proactively identify potential conflicts for solar and wind development or to highlight sites that have more capacity to support sustainable solar and wind energy and where development could be prioritized.

Location spatial planning accelerate renewable transition Southeast Europe
Photo: Sensitivity map for solar energy siting in Zadar county (TNC)
Sensitivity map for wind energy siting in Zadar County
Photo: Sensitivity map for wind energy siting in Zadar county (TNC)

Step three: renewable potential assessment

After exclusion of areas unsuitable for renewable energy development (e.g., areas that are under strict protection, have low energy resource value, contain biophysical constraints, or experience high multi-use competition), we estimated the areas potentially suitable for development.

Solar power plants suitability
Photo: Solar power plants’ suitability in 22,188 hectares of the lowest sensitivity areas in Zadar county (TNC)
Wind power plants suitability
Photo: Wind power plants’ suitability in 8,451 hectares of the lowest sensitivity areas in Zadar county (TNC)

The study’s results estimated approximately 1.1 GW of solar and wind potential in locations identified as lowest risk to environmental and social conflicts in Zadar county. For comparison, this estimated potential is equivalent to half of Croatia’s 2030 wind and solar target.

Photo: Wind farm in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EIHP)

Scaling this approach in Southeast Europe

Implementation of the European Green Deal in Slovenia and Croatia and the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans provides an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate renewable energy development in the region, and there is a role for everyone. The national, county and local governments should put forward renewable energy siting measures in their energy and spatial plans.

The Energy Community Secretariat should help coordinate the identification of suitable zones, as part of the implementation of the National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) while the European Commission and the European public banks should enable financial and technical assistance to its Member States and accession countries to run these assessments before the revision of their NECPs in mid-2023.

Finally, renewable energy project advocates should consider approaching local communities and NGOs from the get-go, inviting them into an open dialogue and offering concrete cooperation opportunities.

We invite all actors interested in our approach to reach out to us, to map the region’s renewable future together! For more information, please access our briefing paper and the full technical report here.

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