Aligning with good practice

26 October 2021

The International Hydropower Association has been engaging with various stakeholders to help build capacity in sustainable hydropower throughout the Western Balkans. With industry-wide sustainability standards and tools available to help guide responsible developments, there is said to be no excuse for hydro projects in 2021 not to be aligned with good environmental and social standards and practices. Suzanne Pritchard reports

The Drin River in Albania. There is enormous potential for further optimisation of hydropower assets across the region.

Across Europe's Western Balkans region, demand is growing for the reliable, renewable energy that hydropower can provide. Yet, according to the International Hydropower Association (IHA), local communities can be divided over hydro’s merits, with some campaigners seeking to bring a halt to new projects. For national licensing authorities, the challenge is to assess whether proposed hydropower schemes are sustainable for the environment and local communities.

To support authorities, investors and developers to implement international good practices in hydropower development, the IHA, the Albanian Power Corporation (KESH) and the Swiss government’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) have launched a new initiative in the Western Balkans. The three-year project will see IHA Sustainability, the organisation’s non-profit subdivision, work with project developers, alongside regulators, investors and civil society organisations from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Alain Kilajian, Senior Sustainability Specialist at IHA, stated: "One of the main outcomes of this programme of support will be to ensure local stakeholders from the Western Balkans are better equipped with the necessary tools to understand and assess the sustainability performance of hydropower projects in line with internationally recognised guidelines.

It is hoped that by reaching key decision-makers as well as NGOs, the training programme will strengthen institutional capacity and widen awareness about the good practice requirements expected of all hydropower projects, as well as providing the opportunity to discuss important sustainability concerns in the region.

The aim is to ensure hydropower projects comply with the Hydropower Sustainability Tools, a set of guidelines and assessment tools developed by governments, industry and social and environmental NGOs. These tools are aligned with lending criteria used by international institutions such as the World Bank and International Finance Corporation.

World Commission on Dams

“They say it takes 21 years for a child to grow up. Well, it’s been 21 years since the World Commission on Dams, which highlighted why so much of this programme is important,” IHA’s Chief Executive Officer Eddie Rich says. “I know that some environmental NGOs and community activists in the Balkans have called for a complete ban on hydropower development….but that is not what the scientists are saying is needed if we are going to address the climate change challenge and meet energy needs.”

Rich was speaking at the launch webinar for the Western Balkans hydropower sustainability initiative which was held on 10 March 2021. This offered a platform for local stakeholders to discuss and share expertise on how to implement hydropower sustainability standards and tools in the region.  Without a significant uplift in hydropower to support the clean energy grid, Rich says that Albania will not reach its net zero targets. And given the significant lead times required in hydropower development, he adds that “we’ve got to start building now”. 

“We know that it is not going to be acceptable unless we can demonstrate that hydropower is not only renewable but sustainable. The aim of this project is to manage the environmental and social impacts of development responsibly. With the hydropower sustainability standards and tools there is no excuse for hydropower development in 2021 not to be aligned with good environmental standards and practices,” Rich stated.

Patrik Meier is from the Swiss Embassy in Albania. He explained that Switzerland and Albania have a long-standing partnership in the energy sector dating from 1992. Switzerland is one of the largest bilateral donors and has previously contributed to the rehabilitation of KESH’s 500MW Fierza hydropower plant on the Drin River Cascade.

Meier spoke about how Swiss support for Albania in the energy sector has seen a shift towards hydropower sustainability which is more relevant than ever to address climate change and economic development. He said that sustainability tools are “only useful when in the hands of the practitioners of the people” which is why the relevant authorities, investors and developers need to be involved so that they can implement best practices with such tools.

“I am happy that this new initiative will contribute to increase the sustainability of hydropower projects while complying with international standards," he commented.

Skavica project

In Albania over the next year, IHA will offer capacity building training for KESH staff and help implement good practices and project reviews using the hydropower sustainability standards and tools. This will be followed by an assessment of the proposed 250MW Skavica hydro project by an independent team.

Skavica was planned in the 1980s but was never implemented. Feasibility studies started in 2017 and five design alternatives give a potential annual energy production ranging from 450GWh to 800GWh. The project is described as being an important and strategic one for Albania, as well as a good opportunity to include sustainability tools into its design. Its main purposes alongside power production are flood mitigation and improving generation in the existing downstream Drin River Cascade.

KESH’s Head of Environmental and Social Sector, Anni Kallfa, said the power corporation is looking forward to applying the tools. “While electricity is the focus of the company, KESH also aims to adopt changes in the business environment, technology, financing opportunities and environmental protection,” she said.  

Commenting on the initiative, Benet Beci, Executive Director of KESH, stated: "On behalf of the Albanian Power Corporation, I feel honoured for being part of this programme, as the largest electricity producer in the country and in the region. Our future challenges concern increasing the energy production and ensuring electricity independence, while at the same time, ensuring a positive environmental and social presence in the communities living close to hydropower plants, as well as promoting sustainable social, economic and environmental development. Therefore, we are committed to adopting the best practices and standards of sustainable hydropower."

Devoll River Cascade

Europe’s largest generator of renewable energy, Norwegian developer Statkraft, first became involved in Albania in 2008. The company says it is committed to the global challenge of climate change and to sustainable and responsible business practice. It said it will always try to understand project impacts, implement measures when needed, and work throughout with transparency.

At the webinar, Rigela Gegprifti, Albania Country Manager at Statkraft, noted her team’s experience in successfully using the Hydropower Sustainability Tools at the 269MW Devoll hydropower project in southeast Albania. 

“One of the ambitions for the Devoll hydropower project was to be able to transfer technology, expertise and know-how to local Albanians. I strongly believe that this technological expertise has been transferred to many young Albanians that are the next generation of ambassadors of sustainable project development,” she said.

The Devoll River cascade comprises the 72MW Banja hydropower project and the 197MW Moglice. Construction began in 2013 with operations beginning at Banja in 2016 and Moglice in 2020. An IHA sustainability assessment was carried out in 2017. 

An independent assessment is a pre-requisite for every project, according to Gegprifti. She said it is important that sustainability standards identify good practice, facilitating the transfer of good expertise and creating a robust basis for new projects to be implemented in a sustainable way.

Statkraft believes the Devoll project has been completed with “full respect to the environment and community”. The company says it has worked with transparency, been a good neighbour to the community and offered support with its various initiatives. For example, the construction of 100km of roads within the region has improved connectivity for more than 50,000 inhabitants; social development has been encouraged through professional training programmes; and more than 50 new homes have been built. Furthermore, afforestation programmes cover more than 900ha and over 1.8M seedlings have been planted. Gegprifti says that Statkraft will continue with such support within the operational phase of project.

“We believe that renewables are definitely the future and hydropower will continue to play its key role,” Gegprifti concluded. With Albania’s hydrological resources she added that “there is enormous potential for further optimisation of hydropower assets”.

Strategic priority

Alain Kilajian from the IHA spoke about how the Balkans webinar was framed “through the lens of the World Commission on Dams”. One of WCD’s strategic priorities was benefit sharing and Kilajian explained that the Devoll scheme was a good example of how a community can be engaged with and benefit from a hydropower project. At this stage in the history of hydropower, he said that every hydropower project should be designed, constructed and implemented with such a level of community involvement.

“It’s always interesting to start a timeline from the WCD report which was a remarkable pivotal moment in the history of the hydropower sector,” Kilajian said. He believes that the hydropower sustainability tools are in some way an outcome of the wide body of research which was carried out by the commission: 21 years later some of its strategic priorities are still being implemented.

Rewrite the script

Eddie Rich explained that the IHA is keen to work with countries such as the Western Balkans to embed the hydropower sustainability tools into policies and regulations and ensure that the relevant stakeholders can implement them.

“With all of that,” Rich says, “we hope we can rewrite the script about hydropower and ensure it can play its role in fighting climate change; setting the bar high for the sustainability of all renewables.”


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