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The Failures of the Authorities for Small Hydropower Plant are Not Accidental

Part of the interview was published in daily newspaper Danas.

Photo: RERI archive | Topli Do

Is there a breach of legal regulations and environmental unconcern in Serbia when issuing permits for the construction of renewable energy facilities?

In Serbia, violations of environmental regulations have taken on the scale of epidemic, not just in the area of renewable energy. The issuance of permits for renewable energy sources (RES), primarily hydropower facilities, is accompanied by misuse of public authority, failure to comply with planning documents, construction of facilities without a construction permit or without appropriate conditions from the competent authorities.

At SHP, the most common types of violations relate to a lack of planning basis and construction that is contrary to the issued water or conditions of nature conservation. We have also observed non-compliance with the regulations governing the environmental impact assessment procedure. The failures of public authorities in licensing, we no longer doubt it, are not accidental and are not the result of ignorance. However, it is important to note that when we talk about regulatory violations, we are always talking about a specific project and a specific location. We have noted the regularity and recurrence of similar abuses, but generalizations should still be avoided.

The failures of public authorities in issuing permits are not accidental and are not the result of ignorance. However, it is important to note that when we talk about regulatory violations, we are always talking about a specific project and a specific location. We have noticed a recurrence of similar abuses, but generalizations should still be avoided.

If there is a violation of environmental law, what type of violation is most common?

RERI investigated illegalities in the construction of small hydropower plants. Therefore, we have the most knowledge about the problems with these projects. In about 20 cases of construction of small hydropower plants that RERI dealt with, we noticed non-compliance with regulations by public authorities at local and republic level, as well as by investors during construction.

These projects are particularly sensitive because they are realized on rivers which are a natural resource and during construction it is necessary to obtain and respect the conditions of nature conservation of the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia. These conditions are often not respected or have not been obtained by the investor. Placing pipelines in the riverbed, despite explicit prohibitions, threatens vegetation and protected habitats.

However, one of the most interesting violations of the law concerns the investor of SHP “Jovanovici” who built the facility without a construction permit and the already notorious investor of SHP “Zvonce” in Rakita who continued construction and completion of the facility despite explicit prohibitions from inspection bodies. In the latter, the Municipality of Babusnica accepted the application for completion of construction works. Wild, wild west!

Recently, you have submitted the initiative to retrial the construction permit procedure, previously issued to an investor for the construction of a small hydroelectric power plant on the “Rakitska River”? What made you do it and who is the investor in that project?

In 2018, the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia carried out tests on the “Rakitska River” and determined the presence of a protected species of trout and a strictly protected species of freshwater crayfish. These are new facts and evidence that are the reason for repeating the procedure for issuing the construction permit for SHP “Zvonce”.

The request to decide on the need for an environmental impact assessment submitted by an investor in July 2013 is incomplete and any serious local government would reject such a request. Well, on the basis of this incomplete request, the municipality of Babusnica decided that an impact assessment study was not needed. In this way, the municipality facilitated the procedure for obtaining the construction permit for the investor of SHP “Zvonce” and denied the public the right to participate in the impact assessment process.

Is RERI committed to stopping the construction of small hydropower plants throughout Serbia or only in national parks and protected areas? Are you only against the construction of derivative small hydropower plant or are you also against the socalled flow which some claim is not harmful to the flora and fauna in the rivers?

RERI is committed to and continues to strive for enforcement and the rule of law. Laws and institutions are accountable to citizens. Without that, there is no environmental protection. Without respect for the law, we are not a regulated society but a robbery company. Also, RERI seeks to contribute to stopping the construction and forbidding of all hydropower plants that are being built or built in violation of regulations and violating the rights of local communities to sustainable development, whether in the protected area or not.

We believe that the announcement of a prohibition on construction in protected areas is nothing more than a populist breath-taking before the elections. Look at the Law on Nature Conservation – there are already enough legal instruments out there to forbid naturedestroying projects. Why does the competent ministry not adopt the Decree on Acceptability and the Ordinance on Sustainable Environmental Flow instead of populist announcements of amendments to the law? We do not accept the excuses of those most responsible persons for the natural disaster that is spreading in Serbia.

We strongly oppose further subsidizing of SHP projects through feed-in tariffs because this represents an irresponsible waste of public funds for the benefit of a small number of privileged investors. Giving incentives to technology that is more than 100 years old at a time when in the world the price of solar electricity is falling below € 15 per MWh is ridiculous and tragic.

The civil sector and environmental activists in Serbia strongly oppose the construction of SHPP but remain silent about the negative effects of building a case for wind farms. Environmental activists, for example, in the Netherlands, are fighting against the negative impacts of wind farms due to noise, bats and bat migration of rare birds. Why is this not the case in Serbia?

I would not say activists are silent. At the time when the SHP construction wave began, 2013- 14, the number of those opposed to these projects was significantly smaller. There was less knowledge and information. The civil sector was not well organized. I think that’s also a problem with wind farms. In addition, the construction of wind farms is most often supported by loans from international financial institutions whose environmental criteria are more stringent and demanding. This is not a guarantee in itself, but I point out the essential difference with the projects of construction of SHP.

Wind park construction projects are only in their infancy and concentrated in one region of Vojvodina. I believe that the involvement of the public in the decision-making processes for the construction of wind farms will increase as the number of projects increases. But since RERI did not research wind farm construction projects, I could not say more about it.

Any intervention in nature has a negative impact on the environment. However, let’s not change theses. The largest pollutants are those using coal at all stages of production. The impact of wind and solar power plants can be reduced to an acceptable extent. The impact of thermal power plants and coal exploitation cannot be reduced to a measure that is acceptable from the point of view of the criteria for the conservation and protection of the environment and the global objectives of combating climate change.

Renewable energy sources in Serbia, including large hydropower plants, are so-called supplementary energy sources. In other words, if electricity were only produced from them, it would not be sufficient for the needs of consumers. We would be totally import dependent. Coal in Serbia produces 70 percent of electricity. When one day there is no more coal to use and RES cannot be because there is not enough potential, what will be the alternative? Nuclear energy or something?

Let me disagree with your question. Renewables are not supplementary, it depends on longterm decisions by public authorities. The fact that the authorities in Serbia have been insisting on coal exploitation for decades does not mean that it is the best solution. On the contrary, it is stuck in the past, as Aleksandar Kovacevic noted more than a decade ago. The National Energy Development Strategy is a road map to a deep, dark and dirty past and economic and social backwardness, and this path is dedicated and persistently supported by public authorities in Serbia.

Let me remind you, Serbia had an obligation to reach 27% of renewable energy in final consumption by 2020. And in 2017 we reached 20.6%, which is less than in the base year 2009. Starting new wind power plants will change the course, but it is clear that Serbia does not change its coal dependency policy. The threat of import dependency is the replacement of theses.

Serbia currently has about 400 MW of installed capacity of wind power plants (Energy Balance for 2019) and technical potential is around 30,000 MW (IRENA, 2017). The persistent regulatory and political blocking of solar development has led to an installed capacity of around 10MW, with technical potential close to 7000 MW (IRENA, 2017). A lot of energy and money was spent to support small hydropower plants, and the total technical potential of SHPP is only around 500 MW. It’s just a picture in the electricity sector.

The cities and municipalities of western Serbia have the potential of available biomass for heating that far exceeds their needs. I did not even mention energy efficiency and development of the regional market, which would only complete the picture in which coal is not the only option.

This burden is imposed on society by force, corruption and mismanagement that does not see from the sulfur vapors where the developed world is going.

Imagine a nuclear power plant being built by people who are unable to reconstruct a city street and a square, or build a freeway without holes appearing in less than a month? This would be extremely dangerous not only for Serbia but also for the region. Fortunately, building a nuclear power plant is too expensive and I sincerely hope that it will not occur to anyone in this country.

Mirko Popović, Programme Director of Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute