- Serbia is disproportionally pushing small hydropower plants to reach its renewable energy targets
- Opaque subsidies, poor public participation and disregard of environmental impact assessments fuel dissent and have even resulted in violent clashes between citizens and private security forces
- Lately, following large protest with thousands of participants a shift in incentives for investments in renewables was announced
Discontent, protests, barricades… The words best describing Serbian public attitudes towards plans for the construction of over 856 small hydropower plants (SHPs). The public does not perceive hydropower as ‘green energy’, let alone approves of these automated systems only benefitting a few, while being detrimental for locals whose livelihoods depend on the country’s pristine and wild rivers – Europe’s blue heart. Investors have purposefully ignored research that demonstrated that the SHPs adversely affect aquatic habitats and the rivers’ dynamics. The rage of local communities, academics and NGOs over these controversial hydro projects has sweltered on for over a decade now, but in the last five years took on a new form.
Under the disguise of a necessary transition to cleaner and renewable energy, in 2009, the Serbian government adopted the Decree on Incentive Measures for Electricity Generation from Renewable Energy Sources, opening the doors for privileged status of hydropower producers. Using a pretext of its regulations’ harmonization with the ones of the EU to reach renewable targets by 2020, the country has encouraged the bloom of small-scale hydropower projects ever since. Allegedly trying to divert from its coal-fired power dependence (about 70% of all electricity is generated from burning coal), it opted for the apparently cheapest and somewhat sustainable solution.
According to the information provided by the Public Enterprise “Elektroprivreda” (Serbia’s main electric power company), 30% of electricity generation already comes from 16 hydropower plants built during mid 1950s to late 1970s. This information is contradictory to some other sources, claiming that the country currently produces slightly more than 21% of its electricity from renewables, including mentioned hydropower. By 2020, Serbia is obliged to reach a share of 27% renewables as a signatory of the Energy Community Treaty. Even with existing 110 constructed hydropower plants, Serbia has not fulfilled its obligations towards this binding target. It is projected that all planned SHPs (under 10 MW) would produce only 2-3% of the total annual electric power consumed in Serbia.
Why such obsession with hydropower?
The apparent public financial support for small hydropower (in the form of feed-in tariffs) has led to disproportionality compared to other renewables and only pushes the SHPs. This biased financing of renewables is not confined to Serbia only, but present throughout the Balkan region and has resulted in the energy transition taking a wrong turn, towards arguably unsustainable hydropower. In the meantime, the wind and solar investors suffer without virtually any subsidies from the State.
One cannot help but ask oneself what the underlying reason for such an obscure incentives system is. It comes as no surprise that the individuals and companies who profit most from it are the ones closest to ruling parties and the governments of the Balkan countries, as several reports have shown. The beforementioned public electric power company in Serbia commits to buying electricity from these privileged groups at a staggering price 50% higher than the market rate. The Center for investigative journalism of Serbia reports that between 2013 and 2016. these investors were paid more than €41.6 million for the power generated.
The real cost of the State investment is met by the tax-paying citizens. Through their energy bills, the people are unwillingly supporting small hydropower investors. The subsidies used to come from the “Elektroprivreda“ company, but due to losses it started to experience since 2013, the end consumers are paying for a really small amount of renewable electricity to private companies.
In the areas hardly hit by the dam tsunami, the locals organize themselves protesting at the construction sites. Recently, they started taking the matter to the streets of the Serbian capital. In 2019, two big protests were held in Belgrade, flocking thousands of activists from different places lead by the organizers – members of the Association of Local Communities of Stara Planina (Savez mesnih zajednica Stare planine) and the movement Defending the Rivers of Stara Planina (Odbranimo reke Stare planine). The latter organization gathered more than 100.000 members on their Facebook group, which makes it one of the most numerous environmental-cause groups in Serbia. Their demands are clear – they ask for an urgent halt on all proposed dam activities in the region, as well as throughout the country.
The communities of the Stara planina region are seemingly the most active and the loudest among the river defenders in Serbia. They mostly insist on law abiding, as 13 out of 24 planned SHPs with derivation are located in the protected area of the Nature Park “Stara planina”, which hosts exceptional biodiversity and cultural heritage. But they are not isolated in their struggle against the hydropower lobby. One of the first civic protests was held in the Prijepolje region in 2012, after an incident at a public hearing where the local residents and activists were reportedly brutally attacked and beaten by the private security of the investor’s company. It is not rare to hear about the conflicts between locals and private securities, police forces (often on the side of the constructors and investors) and hooligans at construction sites. Even in cases where the construction permits are not issued at the time, the companies unlawfully start building the plant, trying to discourage any attempt at preventing building work.
And while the court battles persist and local municipalities, responsible Ministries and other bodies keep discussing who is in charge of what – the villagers are being left without water for drinking, for their land and cattle. Typically, elderly people are struggling to make ends meet and are being forced to move out, once the hydropower plant cuts their access to the water. Most of them do not have a place to go to, and decide to stay and keep fighting regardless of the outcome.
What does the future hold?
Recently, Serbia’s Ministry of Mining and Energy has announced plans to update its incentive system for renewable energy and cogeneration. Using auctions and premiums, new models of power purchase agreements should be adopted, thus granting the status of privileged producers of electricity from wind farms and solar power plants. The local civil societies see this move as a positive diversion towards more equitable investment in renewables, assuming that the new energy forms meet relevant principles of environmental and economical sustainability and social responsibility. Time will show if this and other future decisions will aid in suspending and revoking damaging hydropower projects and halt the wave of dam craze in Serbia and over the Balkan Peninsula.