Bosnia and Herzegovina has long been a proponent of hydropower, but with no state regulation or financial incentives to encourage other renewable energy sources, the potential of solar and wind power is being overlooked.
Once upon a time, back in the days when the former Yugoslavia invested in hydropower, the then Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was seen as a frontrunner in regenerative energy production.
That system of old still provides half the population of the country with electricity. But when it comes to other kinds of renewables, the one-time innovator has ground to a halt, wasting its potential.
Energy expert Vjeran Piršić from Eko Kvarner, a Croatian non-government organization, says the complex political situation is to blame for the country’s continued reliance on hydropower. "It took two years to form a government after the last elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which makes it hard to focus on expanding the network of renewable energy sources,” he says.
Piršić believes one of the greatest problems is that Bosnia and Herzegovina is comprised of two constituent republics, each with its own parliament and significant political autonomy on issues such as energy.
As things stand, many of the country’s 4.6 million inhabitants rely on energy generated by fossil fuels. Almost half the nation’s electricity comes from environmentally harmful coal power stations, while most of the rest is generated via hydropower.
Producing so much energy from water may sound promising, but as experts are quick to point out, that is not necessarily the case.
Harvesting the wind and sun
“Hydropower has serious negative effects on the environment and therefore should not be described as a renewable energy source,” says Zoran Mateljak of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Bosnia. Large-scale hydro projects jeopardize crucial peatland that stores carbon, thereby helping to mitigate climate change.
"If peatlands are destroyed,” Mateljak explains, “Bosnia and Herzegovina’s CO2 emissions will increase exponentially.” He is a proponent of greater use of solar and wind power.
Zvornik Lake hydropower station in Bosnia and Herzegovina provides electricity to the country’s 4.3 million-strong population
As Piršić is quick to point out, the technology is available, especially in the south of the country where sunshine is aplenty. He believes the fastest way for Bosnia to tap into solar power is via Croatia, where companies are already investing in photovoltaic plants on the Mediterranean close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"All those companies would have to do is hop across the border,” Piršić says. Although that might prove complex. “Large areas of land cannot be used because they are still strewn with landmines, and removing them costs a lot of money,” he says.
Progress lags behind
So far the only solar power stations in operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina are small. According to a 2009 government report to the UN climate secretariat, they covered a total area of between just 4,000 and 6,000 square meters.
The document said that if the area would be increased ten-fold to 50,000 square meters by 2020, the plants would be generating an annual total of 33 kilowatt hours of electricity – enough to supply 10,000 homes in central Europe for a whole year.
Compared to this Italian solar power plant, those in Bosnia-Herzegovina are small - though the potential for more is huge
But three years after the publication of the report, Bosnia-Herzegovina is still a long way off meeting its target. And taking stock of where the country stands is difficult. Only the energy ministry in the Federation of Bosnia has a database of current projects, and even that is incomplete.
It lists three finished solar power stations with an installed capacity of 0.16 megawatts. A further 86 incomplete and planned solar projects are supposed to eventually be generating ten times that amount.
The database also lists the constituent republic’s first wind power project: Moštre 1. Although it is finished, it is not yet connected to the grid. A total of 23 other wind power plants are planned.
Besides the difficult political conditions, money also plays a hand in the slow building of a renewables network. In order to change the situation, last year both constituent republics passed laws on buyback prices for renewable energy sources.
They are sorely needed if Bosnia and Herzegovina is to reach its target of wind parks with an installed capacity of up to 900 megawatts by 2015.
In a current study by the Energy Charter Secretariat, which is charged with implementing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s energy charter, experts say the target is unrealistic. They estimate an installed capacity of between 400 and 600 megawatts is more likely. By comparison, the Californian Alta Wind Energy Center in the U.S. has an installed capacity of 1,320 megawatts.
But Bosnia and Herzegovina is not California. It is a country with three main energy companies, which Mateljak believes are too closely tied to politics. “With each change of government, management in the energy companies changes too,” the WWF hydropower expert says.
As long as that is the case, and as long as giant hydro projects make a quicker buck than decentralized renewables, the potential of solar and wind power will remain unharvested.