“There is no a single rational argument for Serbia to still continue promoting the concept of the small hydropower plants. As far as the water potential is concerned, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is better. However, it is quite clear that in Bosnia and Herzegovina, like in Serbia, the local population is not consulted about anything, that it plays a very small part in improving the energy situation, and that the situation in the field reflects all that is recognised around the entire world: the destruction of biodiversity, deforestation, intensification of some erosive processes and essentially disregarding the interests of the local population. Furthermore, there are always individuals and interest groups involved. There are even indications that these interest groups are connected. The banks whose greed has no boundaries also benefit from this”, said Dean of the Faculty of Forestry in Belgrade, prof. Dr Ratko Ristić, who actively fights and publicly opposes the construction of small hydropower plants (SHPP) in Serbia.
“There is one very illustrative categorisation of the construction of small hydropower plants by a researcher who worked on Chinese hydropower plants. He called the construction of the SHPP, especially several of them on one watercourse, ‘Death by a thousand cuts’. It was the traditional way of executing the death penalty in China until the early 20th century, when a living man was cut with a thousand cuts. He claims that the construction of small hydropower plants is exactly that for the ecosystem. The defenders of these projects claim that they do not pollute the environment, which is true, but they omit to say that water derivation kills biodiversity and produces numerous negative environmental consequences, ”says prof. Dr Ristić.
When did you first face the problem of small hydropower plants and when did you start publicly expressing your position?
I first faced the problem of the SHPP as a member of the Republic Audit Committee for Projects of Importance for the Republic of Serbia when I wrote a negative report for the “Pakleštica” SHPP on the Visočica River in the heart of the Stara Planina Nature Park. I realised that this was a very invasive project that would, first of all, endanger the biodiversity of that part of Stara Planina, which is one of the significant points of biodiversity on the world map. The plan was to create a water intake structure that would drain the water from the Visočica River in front of a significant natural object, a canyon called Vladikine ploče, which is also a geodiversity object. The canyon, which is the centrepiece for a spawn of more indigenous fish species, would simply be left without enough water and that population would be endangered.
This is where my fight and public expression started, and later it turned out that Stara Planina was endangered in over 58 locations, and if by any chance this would be realised, it would be truly devastated as an ecosystem. All these small streams are very fragile, they are sensitive, aquatic ecosystems, and they carry biodiversity. Furthermore, in addition to all these watercourses, there are some settlements where the remaining residents live which would have their traditional way of life significantly disrupted. There are some other negative consequences besides the disappearance and degradation of biodiversity and endangerment of local communities.
What are the other negative consequences?
When the water is displaced from the riverbed and introduced into the pipes, then the sections of several kilometres do not interact with the hydrogeological collectors and the groundwater regime would be disturbed too. Afterwards, the problem analysis has shown that we, hastily, very uncritically applied some non-binding principles of the European Union leaning on those three famous Rio conventions: generally on climate change; on biodiversity and the fight against desertification. However, in our local national action plans, we have completely vulgarised all those principles that were intended to protect the environment and reduce the effects of climate change. This was, of course, used by exclusive interest groups and individuals who implemented this whole set of international principles during one very blurry process into Serbian legislation in a very manipulative way. Therefore, the entire environmental policy was also jeopardised with that, because at one point it was completely possible for you to build a small hydropower plant in a national or nature park in an altered protection regime.
What does that mean exactly?
To do it, it is necessary to cut the line corridors in the length of several kilometres through the forest, heavy machinery to enter the riverbed and completely destroy it. And then at one point the question was “So why do we have protected natural areas when it is possible to build such facilities?”. An example is the Golija Nature Park, which is the UNESCO-protected biosphere reserve for its natural values. And at this moment, in the highest quality watercourses where the water is of the first category quality, which means that you can drink it from the riverbed, for the purpose of derivation, the pipelines are laid, access roads are filled, the river bed is made more narrow. Therefore, a complete contradiction to the principles for which it was declared a protected area, and the interest masked by so-called national needs by diversifying the way the energy is produced, are marketed through purely virtual facts.
How is this happening?
The bottom line is: When Serbia builds 856 small hydropower plants it will have 2.5 to 3 percent of energy annually, but over 2200 kilometres of the most fragile watercourses will be piped and we will practically not solve any serious energy problems, and we will create a bunch of environmental and social problems, because it also irritates the local community. At the same time, the Serbia’s Electricity Company has losses in the transmission of electricity from the point of production to the point of consumption greater than 17 percent, and tolerable technical losses are only five percent. The question is where does 12 percent of energy disappear? Furthermore, only three wind farms, which are also not harmless to the environment, but are much less damaging than small hydropower plants, with an installed capacity of 250 megawatts, replace as many as 500 small hydropower plants. At that same time we have not touched the production from the biomass at all, we have not started using geothermal energy, we do not have any serious solar parks and the simple question occurs – so who pushed small hydropower plants through this national action plan?! The answer is very simple: interest groups.
Why is this important to the interest groups?
They have subsidies as the preferential producers, or the so-called feed-in tariffs for which the European Commission has made recommendations to our government to abolish them, which has not been done. Therefore, all those who have registered as preferential producers receive subsidies of 10 to 14 euro cents per kilowatt-hour of delivered energy, which is paid to them on a monthly basis. This is an offset through the electricity bills paid by all citizens of Serbia at RSD 0.093 per kilowatt-hour of energy consumed. In recent years the Serbian Power Company paid more than 50 million EUR to the preferential producers. Out of that share, 24 million are paid out by citizens, who, by the way, no one asked if they wanted to pay for it. This balance of over EUR 28.30 million was disbursed from the profit of the Electric Power Company of Serbia, which could have been spent, for example – improving the technological process for improving the energy efficiency.
What is the situation in the world when it comes to small hydropower plants projects?
The concept of small hydropower plants of derivative type is stigmatised globally. In Canada, for example, they abolished the feed-in tariffs. New progressive Conservative Party from Ontario has abolished the feed-in tariffs for small hydropower plants on the first day they came to power. The US Energy Regulatory Commission has mandated owners of the bulkhead water intake structures for all facilities, including small hydropower plants, to make sure that they restore the ecosystem that has been damaged by the dam. Then they suddenly realised that it was not worth it to them to get money from the state for that subsidised energy, because they had to spend a lot more money to restore biodiversity. In order not to pay for it, they began to remove their facilities themselves and in the last twenty years, more than 1,200 facilities have been removed. The same story is in France, as well as in Germany.
The defenders of the small hydropower projects say that there are thousands of facilities in Europe. That is true, they exist, but they are something that has already been labelled as the technological prehistory. For example, in Germany there are over 7000 of these facilities, but they produce only 0.06 percent of electricity production and it is quite clear that it is no longer a respectable energy source and that it has far greater environmental damage. It should be borne in mind that Serbia is the poorest country in the region when it comes to indigenous surface waters, with the greatest pressure being exactly on those smallest streams, mainly in protected natural areas. Even the World Bank, which cannot, by no means be described as a charitable, environmentally friendly organisation, has issued recommendations that small hydropower plants should not be built in protected natural areas that threaten biodiversity and that the interests of the local population must be respected. Therefore, this is some sublimate of the world experience and it is very interesting that countries, which traditionally did not attach any importance to environmental protection, such as China and India, suspended hundreds of projects for the construction of small hydropower plants because they realised that it did not make sense. It’s a bit of energy, a lot of environmental damage.
How much and why is it important for the academic community to come forward and speak about this issue?
If the representatives of the academic community present their position, with clear and well-founded arguments, that has a strong influence on the whole public opinion (expert and layman public, media, politicians), because it sends a message that has professional and ethical value.