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Albania tiptoes slowly towards wind power

September 12, 2022

Despite an abundance of wind, Albania is still in the starting blocks when it comes to wind power generation. There are a number of obstacles to overcome, but things are at last looking up.

The Adriatic at Karaburun in Vlora, Albania
Applications have been submitted to the Albanian government to build five wind parks on the Karaburun Peninsula in Vlora, southern AlbaniaImage: Elona Elezi/DW

The Lezha mountain range in northern Albania towers over the Adriatic Sea. Here, in the not-too-distant future, an extensive wind farm is due to start generating power. This is an extraordinary milestone in wind power generation in a region where copious wind isn't extraordinary at all.

Albania is blessed with hundreds of superlative locations for both on- and offshore wind power generation. Yet sadly, nowhere in all of Albania – neither on land nor off its 345- km-long (215-mile-long) coastline, is a single turbine churning with wind to produce energy.

Map of Albania showing the capital Tirana and the Adriatic Sea

This April, the Albanian government finally gave Biopower Green Energy and Marseglia Group, an Albanian-Italian venture, the go-ahead for Albania's first ever onshore wind project.

Once in operation in the Lezha mountains, 39 turbines worth €244 million will pack a capacity of 234 MW, covering about 1% of the country's electricity needs. The project, which began back in 2008, took a laborious 13 years to begin construction. But now that it is finally in progress, and electricity is expected to flow sometime next year.

Dominant hydropower

To Albania's credit, its power supply has the distinction of coming almost completely from renewables, or to be more accurate, from one particular renewable energy source: coursing water. Albania hosts major river systems, among them the powerful Drin, which boasts hydroelectric plants that account for around three-quarters of the country's total capacity.

Bistrica Hydro Power plant near Saranda, southern Albania
Hydroelectric plants, like this one near Saranda in southern Albania, account for around three-quarters of Albania's total electricity capacityImage: DW/Arben Muka

Despite the decades-long efforts of both foreign and domestic companies, and prodding from international governments, the effort to make use of Albania's prodigious wind has stalled again and again. There are many different reasons for this, say insiders: the dominant hydropower lobby, excessive red tape, an insufficient market, and an outmoded grid.

Slow progress

But it looks as if the logjam will finally be broken with the Lezha project. In 2021, the government opened bidding for another 100 MW of onshore wind power plants.

Graph showing Albania's total energy supply

As for offshore parks, five Turkish companies have submitted applications to build wind parks with capacities of about 10 MW apiece on the Karaburun Peninsula in Vlora, in southern Albania.

While this movement is welcome, it only scratches the surface of Albania's vast potential in this field. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates Albania's solar and wind potential at over seven gigawatts: more than three times the country's total generation capacity. The IRENA report claims that the country could deploy 600 MW of wind and solar power by 2030.

Red tape and paperwork

Before private sector firms can get their wind projects off the ground, they have to clear a series of hurdles that include getting preliminary approval and an array of permits, conducting costly technical feasibility studies and providing financial guarantees.

Enerjan Gremi, engineer and developer in the field of renewable energy
Engineer and developer Enerjan Gremi has been struggling for years to get five wind power projects started in AlbaniaImage: Enis Mehmeti/DW

Enerjan Gremi, an energy developer, complains that the procedural requirements are much too onerous. He's been struggling for years to get five wind power projects started.

More expensive than hydroelectric power

Another difficulty is the financial viability of wind projects. The price of power from wind farms with an installed capacity of up to 3 MW, set by the Albanian Energy Regulatory Authority, is about €76. By contrast – and here the clout of the hydropower sector becomes clear – the price of a megawatt of hydroelectric power is half that. This makes wind-generated power much less competitive on the Albanian power market.

Graph showing Albania's total capacities of renewable energy

Gremi told DW that the parks he wants to build will take at least eight long years to pay off. Yet another problem is data, in particular on wind speeds. "With this kind of data, foreign companies would invest in project development like they do in hydropower development," says Gremi.

Opening the Albanian Energy Stock Exchange

Another major step is the creation of the Albanian Energy Stock Exchange, ALPEX, which would include neighboring Kosovo. This year, Kosovo opened a 27-turbine wind park financed by the German wind and solar farms developer Notus Energy.

Annalena Baerbock (left) and Albin Kurti (right) on a windy, snow-covered hillside in Kosovo
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (left) has been urging Western Balkan countries like Kosovo to become more energy independent Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Expected to open in November, ALPEX will enable private sector firms to sell energy on the market independently of the state regulatory authority. The exchange is one of the key recommendations of EU experts.

Outdated electricity grid

Pajtim Bello, a former deputy energy minister, today an independent expert in energy economics, says that the legal framework for wind power expansion is now finally in place. The real problem, he argues, is the electricity grid, which requires updating or even replacement to cope with large volumes of wind and solar power.

And then there's the familiar issue facing wind park development just about everywhere in Europe: wildlife protection. At risk are birds and flying mammals or bats, says Mirjan Topi, an ornithologist with the NGO Birds of Albania.

"Birds of prey and large water birds such as pelicans and herons can collide with turbine propellers and be maimed or killed. Prior to the construction of wind farms, a well-founded study on the presence of birds and bats and their behavior in the relevant areas should be carried out," said Topi.

Optimism for the future

Gremi is positive about wind power's chances in Albania: "By cutting the red tape, wind energy could peak in five years."

While this optimism is encouraging, it doesn't change the fact that Albania does not yet have a single wind turbine utilizing this abundant natural resource to produce renewable, zero-carbon energy.

Albania: wind power faces many obstacles

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

Portrait of a woman with long brown hair
Elona Elezi DW Albanian correspondent