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Kosovo opens first biomass heating plant

September 3, 2022

A biomass heating plant has replaced a 40-year-old oil-based system in the Kosovar district of Gjakova and is now generating clean, green energy around the clock. It's a novelty in the Balkans and a model for the region.

A heating plant in Gjakova, Kosovo, surrounded by a green field
Gjakova's biomass heating plant (seen here) uses cogeneration technology — a first in the BalkansImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

On the outskirts of Gjakova, a city with 40,000 inhabitants in southwestern Kosovo, the first biomass heating plant in the Balkans recently began generating heat and a limited supply of power for 2,000 private households, public institutions and businesses.

Hidden behind the ordinary facade of four inconspicuous, gray-tone buildings is a state-of-the-art heat-and-power plant. The unit, which began operating earlier this year, runs entirely on one of the region's most plentiful energy sources: residual biomass, in the form of biodegradable waste such as vine prunings and wood scraps.

Map of Kosovo in the region showing the capital, Pristina, and the city of Gjakova

The European Union and the municipality of Gjakova funded the plant to the tune of €15 million (roughly $15 million). This money bought two heat boilers, which are basically furnaces, and a combined-heat-and-power steam turbine. The latter converts steam into electricity. Meanwhile, the Swiss Economic Cooperation is contributing €5 million for the replacement and refurbishment of the district's heating network.

Heating homes, schools and hospitals

The system, which was three years in the making, will run at full capacity this winter, providing 35% of the city with heat.

Albana Dulatahu-Skivjani, director of District Heating with Biomass in Gjakova, Kosovo
Plant director Dulatahu-Skivjani said the plant creates jobs and provides 'high-quality heat'Image: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

"The advantages are that such plants have an extraordinary impact on environmental protection. Also, this plant creates new jobs and provides high-quality heat to customers, including schools and hospitals," said Albana Dulatahu-Skivjani, the plant's director.

Satisfied customers

If its future customer base is as satisfied as those who currently benefit from the plant, the municipality will have every reason to be pleased.

"I use the heat for my house and my business," said Adnan Canhasi, a 63-year-old Gjakova resident. "We used to have heat only in the mornings and at night for a limited number of hours. It's completely different now," he added. "We have heat 24 hours a day." His heating bill, said Canhasi, hasn't gone up.

Biomass heating material for the new district heating plant in Gjakova, Kosovo
The biomass particles used in the Gjakova plant are mostly forest waste and are, on average, the size of a matchstickImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

Once ongoing repairs are complete, the distribution network for the city's 40-year-old oil-based heating system will transport hot water from the plant to customers' homes.

Slashing fuel and transport costs

Most of the biomass — which turns what would otherwise be refuse into a source of energy — comes from local farms, the lumber industry and carpentry shops in Kosovo itself. This means fuel transportation costs are much lower than for oil, which is imported mainly from Albania.

A ton of biomass costs €110, according to Dulatahu-Skivjani. A ton of imported oil runs at 10 times that price.

Infographic showing Kosovo renewable energy capacity in 2019

That being said, Dulatahu-Skivjani pointed out that a unit of biomass is not nearly as rich in energy: a tanker truck full of oil used to keep the power plant running for two days. Now, two truckloads of biomass are needed to generate the same volume of energy.

A complex process

What sounds like a simple matter of waste incineration is in fact a complex, highly technological process. Firstly, it is essential that the biomass particles, which are mostly forest waste, are neither too large nor too small; on average, they are the size of a matchstick. Secondly, the delivered biomass must meet EU standards for moisture content, pollution levels and wood type.

This winter, the plant will require 10,000 tons of biomass to produce heat without interruption, enabling it to generate 15 megawatts of thermal energy and 1.5 megawatts of electricity.

Ardian Gjini, mayor of Gjakova municipality in Kosovo
Gjakova Mayor Ardian Gjini said expansion into rural areas will be 'problematic'Image: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

"This is the largest investment in district heating in Kosovo," said Dulatahu-Skivjani. The EU is helping integrate Kosovo into the energy system of Southeastern Europe by upgrading its high-voltage transmission network and expanding district heating. In contrast to this project, however, other new district heating networks in the country rely on existing thermal power stations, most of which are coal-fired.

Kosovo's energy strategy

In terms of green energy, Kosovo is in the early stages of development. An energy strategy for the years 2022 to 2031 is currently being drafted for the country. Kosovo aims to be carbon neutral by 2050, according to international guidelines.

A graphic showing Kosovo's total energy supply in 2019

Eight other Kosovar cities are considering biomass heating, but Pristina, the capital and its largest and most polluted city, is not among them.

In order to move forward, "we need more specific data on how much wood we have for the purpose," said Linda Cavdarbasha, Kosovo's deputy environment minister, referring to residual biomass.

Plans for expansion

The heating plant currently supplies only part of the city of Gjakova, but there are plans to expand it.

The supervision and control monitor for the biomass district heating plant in Gjakova, Kosovo
The supervision and control monitor for the biomass district heating plant is new to GjakovaImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

"Expansion into rural areas is problematic because the cost advantage is lost," explained Gjakova Mayor Ardian Gjini. "The heat is conducted through pipes, which need pumping stations to cover long distances. Villages that are further away lose out when costs and benefits are compared."

And critical observers put the project in perspective, with environmental activist Egzona Shala-Kadiu pointing out that "it's just a pilot project, a municipality, and not even the whole city."

Biomass heating plant opens in Kosovo

"Developing something like this [at national level] requires political will," she said, which, according to Shala-Kadiu, is absent in Kosovo. However, because "climate policy is currently very relevant" at international level, she hopes EU member states and the EU itself will help cover the cost of a much larger rollout of renewables.

Nevertheless, Shala-Kadiu welcomed the fact that with this pilot project, Kosovo has begun using what it has in abundance to produce energy in a green way.

This article is part of a five-part series on renewable energy development in South Eastern Europe conducted with the support of  journalismfund.eu.

Edited by: Paul Hockenos, Rüdiger Rossig, Aingeal Flanagan

A young woman (Vjosa Cerkini) with long black hair
Vjosa Cerkini Reporter focusing on Kosovo and other Western Balkan countries