Excess bureaucracy, corruption, outmoded energy grids and underdeveloped markets are stopping Balkan countries from exploiting the tremendous renewable energy potential at their fingertips.
South East Europe has the potential to be a Shangri-la for zero-carbon energy sources, above all for solar, wind and bioenergy. One expert study after another confirms that the region’s long hours of sunshine, gusty coasts and mountain ranges, and immense biomass resources provide exceptional conditions for a thriving renewable energy sector.
The benefits of a clean energy revolution would be an enormous boon for the region. Since wind and solar power are now the cheapest energy sources by a long shot, many billions of euros could be shaved off energy costs, and billions more racked up in other benefits, such as cleaner air, which would improve people’s health.
The International Renewable Energy Agency, for example, estimates that by harnessing solar and wind power, this corner of Europe has the potential to produce 739 gigawatts of green power. That’s as much as 739 medium-sized nuclear reactors generate in a year and more than three times the electricity that Albania and the countries of the former Yugoslavia currently consume. In short, there is huge export potential in exploiting the natural energy wealth of these countries — all of which currently import electricity.
Moreover, energy systems run on locally generated energy would bolster local revenues rather than the ledgers of far-away multinationals, and a modern, resilient regional energy system would greatly improve the security of energy supply — long a bugbear in the Balkans. Last but not least, although the region is not a first-tier emissions sinner, it is now part of European efforts to lower greenhouse gases and hit international climate goals.
A basis for transformation
So why are the Balkan countries currently importing expensive fossil fuels and burning the coal and forest wood they cull from their own territories? This is exactly the question that we — Deutsche Welle, a group of first-rate journalists from the region and I — set out to answer. Journalismfund.eu, a Brussels-based grant program, offered to help us investigate the energy sectors in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia. The product was five cross-media reports that uncovered similar hurdles in all five countries but also anomalies unique to each specific country.
On the upside, one thing that all five countries had in common was the seminal breakthroughs in terms of legislation that has in recent years opened their energy markets to clean energy producers. This legislation was years in the making, and although not flawless, as our reports from Serbia and Bosnia clearly show, it is a starting point for transformation.
Progress is being made
In Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia, new power exchanges are opening that will provide the integrated short-term markets required for the uptake of large volumes of intermittent renewables.
Nevertheless, unless the political and business elites in the region wholeheartedly embrace the logic of renewables — which is not at present the case — the region’s markets will remain favorable to fossil fuels and hydropower, a renewable energy already plentiful there, for years to come.
Rollout blocked by conservative players
Indeed, the ties between energy producers and the state in the region go back a long way, namely to the socialist era, and persist to this day. There is profit and power in the status quo: in the persistence of coal in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as Dragan Maksimovic reports, hydroelectric power in Albania, and oil and gas elsewhere.
Deeply conservative players involved in these sectors have so far blocked the rollout of solar and wind power and continue to throw a spanner in the works wherever they can. This is why the Maricic family in Ruma, Serbia, encountered such difficulties in making rooftop solar power generation happen in their home, as Sanja Kjaljic reports.
First tentative steps towards renewables
In Albania, offshore and onshore wind power developers were until recently completely held back. Elona Elezi reports that the very first turbines are now going up in the northernmost of the cuntry. More will follow, but until the market and a responsive, modern grid — a troublesome issue across the region — are up and running, the development of the wind power sector will be slow and erratic.
One factor with the power to propel renewable energies forward in the region is the soaring prices of fossil fuels, which make investments in clean energy pay off all the more quickly, as Daniela Trpchevska Zafirovska reports from North Macedonia.
Moreover, because of international efforts to tackle the climate crisis, the international community has become involved, foremost the EU and its member states, which help in the form of the energy community and projects like the biomass plant in Kosovo that Vjosa Cerkini reports on.
Perhaps the determining factor will be burgeoning popular enthusiasm. There is demand for cheap, clean renewable energy, DW’s correspondents report. This is ever more evident on the ground as citizens in the region not only become aware of the vast potential of clean energy sources in their region, but also catch a glimpse of what others are doing elsewhere and what they’re missing out on.
This text is the opener of a series of five articles on renewable energy development in South Eastern Europe conducted with the support of journalismfund.eu. Please find the articles and videos hyperlinked in the text above.