The hydro engineer’s dream of the perfect dam and power scheme would be in geological terrain with abundant rock and concrete resources to hand, no resettlement issues and pristine ecology. Small, remote, mountain populations would find their donkey tracks replaced with good roads leading to four-lane transit highways. The scheme would capitalise on snow melt and annual high rainfall through extensive storage systems for all-season power, landslide control, irrigation and drinking water. The vast lakes would bring first-time eco tourist resorts combined with already extensive fish aquaculture and nature reserves. There would be experienced local engineers with some clever tricks up their old hydro-sleeves, and plenty of labour used to working against the near-vertical to pour concrete.

Such a place exists – flying under the flag of the two-headed eagle of Albania. There are half a dozen significant schemes on the books waiting to go, from 25MW to 350MW. The latter at Skavice on the Black Drin could cost €550M. But this country of some three million (and a million and more abroad) is resource rich and cash poor. When IWP&DC first visited 25 years ago and drove on the few, vertiginous mountain roads to the capital Tirana, the state electricity body was exporting electricity across the Balkans. Home stoves were heated from its massive coal reserves and the ferrochrome smelters used the power (Albania has amongst the biggest ferrochrome reserves in the world and massive coal and bauxite reserves). Last year saw severe power cuts and there are still a lot of unpaid electricity bills. If investors are to understand the potential power scenario today, they need to know a little of Albania’s geo-political past.

A statue of national hero Skenderbeg stands in Tirana’s main square, a memorial to his revolt against the Ottoman empire which won Albania 30 brief years of independence to 1478. Attacked from left and right over centuries, during WWII it was occupied by the Nazis and Italian Fascists. Enver Hoxha, whose regime faded after his death in 1985 stands accused of at least 80,000 catalogued deaths in political camps. Slave labour was the fate of many in mines and collective farms, and malnutrition was widespread amongst children.

The main hydro schemes were built under Albania’s post-war partnerships, first with the USSR and then with China up to 1978. When those alliances fell apart Albania went into total isolation in modern Europe. With the ‘revolution’ at the start of the 1990s the industrial and civil infrastructure was destroyed. Then, as things were picking up, the country descended into anarchy when government endorsed ‘pyramid’ investment funds – in which over 60% of the population invested – collapsed. Albanians have now come back from the brink through sheer hard work and are generating an economic and construction boom. That boom is also reflected across the region as peace and security break out in places such as Kosova. All those neighbours need electricity expansion and Albania could be the key, with double the water of all its neighbours combined. On the political front, Albania wants to join the EU. Prime Minister Dr Sali Berisha is well on the way for NATO membership, domestic security is much improved and there is a crackdown on construction irregularities and corruption with some high-profile bulldozing and prison sentences. US banks have taken a big presence in the country and America is very popular.

Gertjan Veshaj is a typical, young, Albanian bureaucrat pushing for change. He is the Advisor to the Transport and Telecoms Minister. During a meeting, he spelt out to IWP&DC the scale of infrastructure development which will also facilitate any major power and dam construction projects for which his ministry is responsible. Key is this year’s €800M budget, the bulk of it targeted at roads. Work is well under way on a four-lane highway from Durres Port on the Adriatic through to Pristina, the capital of Kosova. This will make Albania a main sea-land gateway and transit route to and from the region. The Albanian stretch alone is costing $250M and includes major viaducts over some of the most difficult mountain valleys in Europe and a 5km tunnel. More highways will link it into the Trans-European highway network and give neighbours such as FYR Macedonia major time-saving for long distance truck logistics to Italy and beyond. New ports are envisaged at Durres and Vlore, Tirana’s airport has been expanded and a new one is slated for the south behind Sarande port near the Bistrica hydro station. There is local opposition to a 150MW oil-fired proposal at Vlore under an MOU between Albitoil and Tractabel of Belgium, and a new EBRD funded oil terminal. New and old cement plants are in expansion to feed domestic and regional demand.

New highways and new mountain roads (funded by the World Bank) will not only ease hydro construction access but open up more of the vast Drin river water system. The old roads of Albania were laced with water sluices and controls everywhere. This tradition is replicated on the new ones for water conservation, to feed reservoirs and lakes (there are 600 already) and protect against landslides. The new highway to Kosova will act as an embankment for the Mati river.

The Drin cascade and Vjosa River

Main schemes looking for funding are on the existing Drin cascade in the North and the unexploited Vjosa river in the South (and Austria’s EVN is pursuing a 400MW three-dam scheme on the Devoli, which the Norwegians were reported to have been interested in before).

Skavice, technically at the top of the Black Drin, would add 350MW. Tenders are in hand for 40-70MW at the village of Ashta-at-Bushati at the bottom of the Drin. These two would complete the cascade of Fierzes (500MW), Koman (600MW) and Vau i Dejes (250MW) and their reservoirs (including the largest claimed in Europe, with a two-hour ferry journey the only easy way from Fierze to Koman). These three plants account for more than 90% of national hydro capacity of 1460MW and 98% of production. Ashta-at-Bushati’s final capacity will depend on the concessionaire’s design. The power ministry says it will benefit from the regulated flow from the upstream reservoirs, be run-of-river, have a catchment area of 11,570km2 and has a long-term average annual flow of 310m3/sec.

Uncertainty hangs over the longstanding proposal for Skavice. Veshaj says they are fully aware that the ballpark figure of some €550M is quite daunting. This would be a PPP and there has been interest from Italy. The multi-year reservoir will be totally located within Albanian territory before the FYR-Macedonia border and the aim is to produce 1.05-1.1 TWh/year. There would be spinoff, with between 0.2-0.3BkWh more production at the downstream plants Fierza, Koman and Vau i Dejes.

The Vjosa river, Albania’s second largest, rises in Greece, passes through the mineral water area of Tepelenë and meets the sea above Vlorë in southern Albania. The study for this was prepared by Albania’s own experts in the early 90s at the Albanian Hydrogeotechnical Institute and it is understood there is Italian interest in Kalivac but no further details are immediately available. It envisages seven plants totalling 495MW with catchment areas ranging from 2370km2 at Kaludh to 5710km2 at Selenica with average water flows starting at 63m3/sec and up to 163m3/sec.

Terrain, capacity and value

The importance of the new road access for hydro expansion is reinforced when one realises that 70-75% of Albania’s total surface of 28,748km2 is composed of mountains, hills, lakes and rivers. Government data suggest that with 44,000km2 hydrographically, it stands second in Europe only to Switzerland. In cost terms, late 1990s Albanian data has Switzerland with a hydro potential of 6800kWh per resident and 823,000kWh per km2, Albania at 6000kWh and 600,000kWh per km2, then Austria at 476,000kWh per km2, Yugoslavia at 300,000kWh, Bulgaria at 191,000kWh, Italy 182,000kWh, France at 110,000 kWh and Romania at 84,000kWh.

Further the Albanian Constructors Association calculates that Western Europe’s most profitable hydro power plants over the last 20-40 years, cost ‘2-3 times more [per unit installed] than in our hydro stations that are constructed on the Drin river’. They say most of the main rivers – Drin, Devoli, Osum, Vjosa and Mati – are in little-inhabited areas so maximum use can be made of them without serious flooding risks. The region’s complex tectonics suggest quake issues are on the west coast plains at Skhodra, Durres and Vlore. Large lake and reservoirs would be replicated on the Vjosa to reduce capital cost with lower dam crests. The Albanian engineers say higher dams in Austria, Italy and Switzerland, to cope with deficit water periods, means electricity ‘in the deficit period costs 3-4 times more than …during the other periods of the year’.

Skavice, it is said, would offer the possibility for ‘90% of all hydro stations of [the] Drin to be over 95% of their average power’. This is because the cascade has some 6Bm3 of reservoir/lake waters along the cascade equivalent to 6.5BkWh. If Skavice finds a promoter, it will take two years to fill its reservoir and there would be flooding of 5000 to 6000 ha of land. The engineers argue they can also manage without more expensive off-peak pumped storage generation plants for peak power because of total water availability and switching on the grid which is also getting some renovation.

Because most hydro areas are largely uninhabited, part of the hydro strategy is eco tourism development. The little use of fertiliser under the closed regime of Hoxha and even now, means that terraced agriculture in the valleys has caused little pollution and it is fair to say that Albania may be one of the last unspoilt areas of Europe and hydro can maintain that. The massive inland lakes and the main river systems remain generally unpolluted and clean according to scientists such as Professor Petrit Zorba, hydro-engineer Gezim Struga and the agriculture ministry’s Director General Professor Myslim Osmani. Watching a few sheep, goats and a bullock, squeezed into a rowing boat, being brought to shore by one man in the evening sun on the Ulza dam reservoir, highlighted for IWP&DC another strategic government aim – easier inland navigation and time-saving for locals in the mountains and valleys where the donkey still plays a major role in logistics and water can be the shortest way to selling your livestock or cherries, the national fruit.

Small power politics

Ironically, boom Albania has 30% unemployment. The draw of the Westernising cities in the coastal regions has accentuated the depletion of already thinly-populated high mountain settlements. Inland main cities such as Elbasan with its steel and ferrochrome smelters (now working again under Turkish concessions) are offering limited employment. Job demand is good news for large hydro and particularly mini.

There was a dark side to hydro which anyone working with the Albanians must always be mindful of. When you ride in from the Mother Teresa airport to Tirana you will pass over a state-of-the-art highway interchange designed by design engineer Gezim Struga from Albanian construction company TRISS. Struga was 16 when he began working on the first sizeable hydro plants at Ulza (25MW x 4 turbines) and then Shkopet (24MW x 2 turbines) off the Mati river 50km above Tirana. He recalls how the driving force was a young Soviet engineer and designer (the dam and Austrian turbines were part paid for by WWII reparations). The Russian, already a professor, was only in his 20s, and from the hydrogeological design institute in Leningrad which inspired generations of young Albanian engineers. Struga explained how the Ulza plant was not just beautifully designed, with its elegant arches below the crest, but that the young Russian conceived this as the world’s first dam with the turbine hall inside the dam wall. The Voith turbines are still operating beautifully through their quality – and good maintenance, he adds. Voith also won the contract a few years back to upgrade the Bistrica 25MW system in the south, where Struga worked at the age of 19, after he worked on Vau I Dejes for two years.

But the control of Hoxha’s lieutenants, through the communist party and the feared Sigurimi (secret police) was fierce. The young staff were not allowed home without special passes and even then only very occasionally – they were as good as in detention, though well-fed with food imported by the Russians in the dreadful post-war period. Worse, of the 3-4000 deployed on the reservoir and channel work around Ulza and lower Shkopet plant, as many as 50% were political or other prisoners working under atrocious service conditions. Thoma Meksi, former chairman of the state Albanian Electricity Corporation (KESH) in the 1990s, says it was even worse for large numbers of ‘disobedient’ soldiers who were sent to these construction sites for punishment. The Soviets pulled out in 1962 when Khruschov veered towards the Americans. The Chinese moved in (and so did their turbines, mini and large) but they left after the Sino-Albanian split of 1978.

At one time Albania had significant numbers of micro hydro generating systems across the country. In the early 1990s IWP&DC saw that they were already falling into disrepair. But faced by the enormous cost of schemes like that at Skavica, engineers such as Meksi are backing wind power and working with several European companies, while Struga and others believe the future may lie in local, micro and small hydro. Albania’s topography means that there are literally hundreds of small ‘brooks’, as he calls them, rivers with 2-3m3/sec available for 5000 hours a year. His thinking is to capitalise on the much better ratio offered by small modern turbines as well as stripping out a significant part of the traditional construction cost for handling the water and penstocks [see diagram below]. He also says the hydrological evidence points to the small schemes not being so affected if global warming predictions come into play – in terms of less melt or lower precipitation.


Schematic of a small hydro scheme (c) Gezim Struga

Micro and small also sidestep the need to find €550M for the 350MW Skavice. Struga suggests the price of 1kWh per build in Albania at the moment is about €1200, of which €600 is for machinery and €600 for construction work, compared with €3000-4000 per 1kWh installed in Western Europe.

Struga has 50 sites in mind already, and he believes affordable local systems could attract local investment (including remittances from Albanian migrants who are investing heavily at home). This would generate construction work now and maintenance jobs later and have a direct impact on irrigation pumping and agro-industrial needs. Further, Prime Minister Berisha told all mayors in May that he would hand over US$2B from the central treasury to the control of the municipalities for direct spending as they saw fit. Small schemes could earn by feeding spare capacity into the grid. This would be easier under the active move to privatise KESH, splitting generation and distribution. A decentralised network of micro and small power generation would reduce dependence on the intermittent main grid. The large stations are struggling at 5BkWh to meet demand which even today is already heading for 8 or 9BkWh. Struga believes the country could quickly and easily reach 15BkWh (out of a theoretical 22+ BkWh potential). Micro and small could account for 50% of that and be on stream far faster than a few big systems, he suggests.

The important role which the hill populations played building hydro from the late 40s onwards is acknowledged today. Hydro can bring a good living back into the hills with power for small industry, agriculture and tourism. Communications are no longer an issue – IWP&DC’s local simcard worked on mountain side and beach, in valley and on the plains, and the next stage is to roll out Max-WiFi radio broadband across the country. Further, local hydro schemes should not face eco resistance. Local consumer involvement through investment could boost them, just as has happened with the community, wind-powered generation schemes in Denmark. This strategy may be exportable to other parts of the region.


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