Hydro power: The failure to deliver on energy independence and potential alternative sources

Authors: Amogh Matthews and Jona Kaso

Despite the large number of hydropower plants that produce energy, Albania is still in the midst of an energy crisis with high energy prices for the government and consumers.

One case, in particular, speaks to the severity of the crisis. Liljana Sema from Fier froze to death on Januay 26th of this year because she could not pay her electricity bill.  Relatives found her dead and claimed she died because the OSHEE had cut off her electricity.

Currently, all household consumers in the country  pay an average of 9.5 ALL per kWh without VAT.  The Counncil of Ministers adopted a special decision which provides for  a reduced cost for low-income families.

With the new method of calculating energy use, tarifs and rising energy prices, citizens are expressing concern that they do not have enough money to pay for electricity.

“It’s becoming more and more difficult for us, but we have nothing to do, we can not change it because it is a global crisis,” says Lefter Selamani, a resident of Tirana.

E.T., who is a painter,  expresses the same concern.

“I have lived for 54 years as a painter, even today I pay nineteen thousand lek for the electricity bill. I can not afford it. I live in debt just to pay for the lights to be on. Have you ever eaten just plain bread every single day? This is how we live, I have removed the light bulbs just so I do not waste electricity, as we can not afford the high energy prices,” he said.

A question many Albanians are asking is why is this happening.

Is reliance on hydropower to blame

In a country with an abundance of sunshine and seasonal droughts, there remains an overreliance on hydropower.

The government won’t answer the question of why it is continuing to approve the construction of hydropower plants. But many experts say the policy is a mistake.

“If we continue with the same concepts as currently, even though government investment proposals have been there for years, we will be in crisis and have emergency periods every late summer or mid-autumn,”  said Klodian Gradeci, former head of the Albanian energy company distribution wing (OST).

Former Head of the OST, Klodian Gradeci

That’s when droughts dry up rivers and make hydropower plants useless.

Several years back, Prime Minister Rama promised that there would be no construction of dams in protected natural areas, while today the opposite has happened. The Rama government failed  to stop the buildings of dams on the protected area of the Valbona River.

In addition, the government has been reluctant to declare the Vjosa River a protected area, which would spare it from the construction of massive projects that would negatively affect a considerable part of southern Albania.

To date, hundreds of construction contracts are expected to be implemented for the construction of dams, one of them being the contract to  dam the river Shushice (Vlora) in the villages of Brataj,

Gjorm and Kotë in Vlora.

At least one of the proposed plant construction projects has met with stiff opposition from local residents.

Since 2018, inhabitants of the Shushice valley have been protesting to stop the construction of these planned dams over their river. They claim construction of these hydropower plants, will result in entire villages being  left without water and that, in turn, will impact  livestock, agriculture and their household incomes.

Sotir Zahoaliaj, a resident of Brataj village, who is against the construction of a HPP in that area, says that the water of the river will be taken and introduced into pipes up to 7 km.

“The whole area there is completely unexplored from the archeological area, there are many ancient things, wars have taken place here. We object that there is a bridge, a very ancient work, the water that passes through that bridge will dry up, it is the same as saying “as a mother without children, so is the bridge without water,” Zahoaliaj said.

The mayor of the village, Qemal Malaj, says that the construction of this HPP will have a negative impact on the livelihood of the inhabitants of the area, livestock, irrigation and fishing.

“In fact we do not want to build it at all, as it greatly hurts the livestock part and other resources ” Majaj said.

 Residents say that from the beginning, when they received notification for the construction of this HPP, they protested and even filed a lawsuit to suspend construction in that area. The lawsuit filed by residents is still pending without a hearing scheduled as yet.

There are 252 active hydropower plant concession contracts, according to data from the AKBN, while hundreds more are expected to start construction.

According to data of the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure, from 2010 to 2021, 96 concession contracts were signed for the construction of hydropower plants, of which only 39 are in operation, while 57 others are assumed to be under consideration.

In addition, 87 contracts (not subject to concession, of which 29 are in the operation phase) have been signed for a production capacity below 2 MW and another 58 remain under consideration.

Ola Mitre, environmental journalist, says that the “official” number of concession contracts of hydropower plants are not accurate, as there is no electronic register to collect all the data on how many contracts have been approved, how many have been suspended, how many are under review, how many have applied for permits or how many are in force.

Whatever the number, Olsi Nika, Executive Director of EcoAlbania, a local environmental NGO, and expert in the field, says this energy production capacity does not come close to meeting the overall energy production capacity Albania needs.

Nika notes that it has become clear that the construction of small HPPs, which do not make any significant contribution to energy production compared to their socio-ecological footprint (damage), is driven by businesses’ desire to make money.

Olsi Nika, Executive Director of EcoAlbania

“The main promoter is not energy production, but the money invested, often also provided illegally.”- he says.

When asked about this, the government refused to comment.

Miriam Ndini, who holds the degree of Doctor of Science in Hydrology, says that the construction of large and small  hydropower plants should  only proceed after a general study is completed. The government should not deviate a water stream, no matter how much energy it has the potential to produce, without a feasibility study, she added.

Ndini believes building four HPPs on a single riverbed  would turn the river into a canal and no longer a natural river. She says, because of climate change,  the country’s amount of rainfall has started to dwindle and not be constant, making small hydropower plants ineffective.

“These are installations with no gathering reservoirs, which divert water from the river and when there is too much water they don’t effectively use much of it, and when there is no rainfall, they dry out the river in its entirety,”  Ndini says.

Assoc.Prof.Dr. Mirjam Ndini, Professor of Civil Engineering at Epoka University

Another concern, raised by Ndini, is that state institutions don’t follow strict procedures to guarantee oversight and efficacy in the investments for energy production.

“The studies for the projects of these HPPs are done superficially, and this is a consequence of the responsible institutions. There used to be special institutions for such projects including the Institute of Maritime Works, the Hydrological Institute, the Institute of Hydrotechnical Constructions, which are no more. All of these institutions ultimately used to sign and seal the fate of such investments and took responsibility for everything. Now everything is done individually, and now there are no more institutions,” she argues.

But some experts do not see the unrestrained building of hydropower plants as a bad thing. Energy expert Pajtim Bello says the large number of plants does not, in itself, constitute a problem, but is a means to an end.

However, energy experts, including Pajtim Bello, are critical of Albania’s energy policy post-1990s saying it has not focused on diversifying sources of electricity generation.

Where Albania is with energy production now

At present, Albania’s has only two sources of electricity—it’s hydropower plants and importing energy from other countries.

According to energy production data for 2021, on the website of the Albanian Energy Regulatory Body, hydropower plants worked at full capacity. The total net domestic production of electricity for the year was 8,962 GWh, of which 59.6% was produced by the plants owned by the public production company KESH sh.a., and 40.4% was produced from other power plants.

Total electricity consumption in 2021 amounted to 8,415 GWh, which appears to be almost at the same level as production. But despite that fact, Albania still endured an energy crisis.

“The distribution of production in the periods of the year does not match the consumption because in the dry period the production is significantly smaller than the consumption and this is a consequence of the resource profile [production through HPPs],” said  Bello.

Albania produces  a lot of energy during the rainy season which the country has to export, but on dry days the country is forced  to import energy at exorbitant prices because there is not enough water to produce it.

The year  2020 was an exception. Albania did not  import any electricity, but only exported.

Other Reasons for the Energy Crisis

The energy situation in Albania will continue to be affected by the energy crisis in continental Europe with average prices ranging between 300-400 Euro/MWh.

“While all countries in our region have changed their approach to the free energy market, Albania continues to operate only with the old mechanisms, not using efficiently the relevant funds for the purchase of energy,” says energy expert Klodian Gradeci.

Other experts believe the war in Ukraine has exacerbated the current energy crisis by increasing  energy prices across the continent as well as domestically.

Elton Qëndro, an environment expert, believes the government has to think in the long term and focus more on encouraging less energy consumption.

 “In this crisis situation where our power system is based on domestic production at only one source, short-term measures are limited. So, energy insurance is paramount, reasonably priced insurance is just as important. In this situation, only austerity measures are a very important element not only in crisis situation but also in normal situation. The cheapest energy is the one saved,” said Qëndro.

Qëndro strongly believes the government must pursue long-term measures that are of a strategic and political nature, including diversifying sources of electricity, in order to safeguard the price and public interests.

“When I talk about diversification, I mean four (4) elements: – diversification of the energy mix; – diversification of supply companies – diversification of supply routes (the country from which energy is imported such as Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro or Greece) – and diversification of geographical sources. As we are aware, Albania for the last two years has been active in licensing a number of photovoltaic plants which require, for their implementation, time and maturity to enter production.” – he says.

Other alternatives for energy production…

While almost 100% of renewable energy in Albania is produced by hydropower plants,  there is some progress in developing solar energy as a new source of electricity.

“Over 2100 kwh/m2/year of energy comes to us free of charge from the sun in Albania – this means more than 300 sunny days a year; why not look for investment opportunities for the use of solar energy, especially in rural areas?” said Aleko Miho, Professor of Botany and Environmental Biomonitoring at Tirana University.

Prof. Aleko Miho, Faculty of Natural Studies, Tirana University

In 2020, the Minister of Infrastructure and Energy Belinda Balluku announced that a photovoltaic park with an energy capacity of 140 megawatts would be built in the Divjaka-Karavasta park, . In 2021, the auction was opened for a photovoltaic park of Spitallë, which would produce energy up to 100 megawatts.

The Ministry says the Spitallë project is in the process of fulfilling the preliminary conditions of the contract.Voltalia, the French-based company constructing the solar park, is expected to get the land it needs in the coming months.

Voltalia has been provided with a construction permit, environmental permit and has received the necessary permits for the construction of the Karavasta project which  was expected to begin in July and take 12-15 months.

Qendro says the solar projects in both parks, will give the government the right to purchase energy of 100 MW at a regulated price of 24.89 Euros per megawatt for 15 years, compared to the actual free market price of 200-250 Euros per megawatt.

Based on a report of the Energy Performance Assessment in Buildings examining energy and poverty, only 2% of people in Tirana use solar energy for heating their water. So there is plenty of room for that number to increase.

“Solar power plants from public and private financial sources should reorient the policies in building resources for self-supply where the opportunities are great. When I say policy reorientation, I also mean investing in electricity transmission and distribution networks to absorb these small but numerous resources that make great power,” Pajtim Bello added.

Other avenues of energy production also exist. Miho notes that the trans Adriatic pipeline is in Albania, which can make it somewhat easier to meet energy needs and mitigate the extreme use of rivers. He suggest putting into operation the Vlora Thermal Plant.

“There are other alternative energy sources that should not be forgotten, such as wind energy, biogas, etc. Relying on some alternative sources is more sustainable, longer lasting than relying on hydroponic sources alone,” Miho said.

In parallel with the construction of new solar power plants, the government has also promoted the setup of wind farms, one of them being constructed on the Karaburun peninsula. However, this investment also has had its detractors, mainly environmentalists.

Ola Mitre, Environmental Journalist

“Works with heavy machinery or other constructions are not allowed (due to the protected status of the Karaburun peninsula), and in fact the construction of these kind of investments is forbidden because these are works that will damage the surrounding area,” Ola Mitre said.

“Violating the law and destroying the environment is not a solution,” she notes.

During its 30 years of democracy, Albania has invested very little government money in the construction of major energy production projects, says Gradeci. TEC Vlora was one of the main investments but it remains non-functional due to technical problems. The solar panel plant on the Qyrsaq dam in Vau Dejes, with a capacity of 5.4 M, is insufficient, he added.

“The main objective of the government should be energy production. If KESH were to build power plants with solar panels, it would best optimize our energy reserves and the company finances. It would increase the security of production and the adequacy of energy from local sources,” Gradeci said.

…but why do we continue with the old ways?

Ndini says that HPPs are being built all across Albania because project approval is guaranteed. Getting a permit is easy.

Miho lists  several reasons for the construction of so many hydropower plants in Albania.

“We are a country with a lot of surface water, which among other things is a hydropower resource; in our development our country needs energy, and case by case to meet the needs, energy is imported (bought) from abroad; the energy received from HPPs is considered as clean energy, as it does not discharge waste into the environment,” he said.

“Many of my colleagues and I are not strongly against the construction of HPPs! But all these construction plans are a huge environmental and social burden for the country. This cumulatively can never be called “green energy”, especially when it comes to construction within protected areas and within areas with fragile natural values,”  Miho adds.

Gradeci is not optimistic about the future. If Albania continues on the same path it’s been on for years, he predicts the country will face an energy crisis  every late summer and mid-autumn going forward.

Hydropower in the United States

While hydropower is Albania’s primary source of electricity generation, hydroelectric power makes up only 6.3% of total utility-scale electricity generation in the U.S., a figure that has decreased over time due to increases in other sources of electricity generation such as wind, and solar.

Daniel Bresette, Executive Director at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute

“Hydropower is (still) a pretty big slice of renewable energy generation and renewable energy generation is becoming a larger slice of where we overall get our power,” said Daniel Bresette, the Executive Director at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute based in Washington DC.

The History of hydroelectric generation

By 1950, hundreds of hydropower plants were in operation across the US. Dams not only created power but also provided other functions like flood control, irrigation, and urban water supply. Large-scale multipurpose dam projects drove regional growth.

President Franklin Roosevelt championed the construction of federal hydropower projects including the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams in the American West. By 1950, hydroelectric power, or “white coal” as it was called, accounted for 30.2% of the country’s electricity generation.

While Americans lauded dam construction at the time, author Gabriel Lee in his book “Concrete Dreams: The Second Nature of American Progressivism,’’ said ‘’large power dams were contested spaces that raised a number of thorny questions: how would (dams) dramatically transform river systems and legal claims to a river’s water and fisheries? were dams more environmentally destructive than they were economically productive? Many of these questions still remain with us today.’’

Hydropower: the energy of the past?

Fast forward 60 years, and hydroelectric power is not the energy of the future. Dam construction ended up peaking between 1950 and 1969, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers. In each decade since the 1970s, the U.S. has built fewer dams than each previous decade.

The environmentalist movement of the 1960s and 70s shed light on the havoc dam construction can have on ecosystems and led to important legislation. This included the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy act which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. This curbed the rise of future large-scale dam construction.

Today, America’s dams are ageing. The 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure reports that the average age of US dams is 57 years old. Since many dams were built decades ago, many dams in operation do not meet current safety standards according to congressional research reports.

Approximately 15,600 dams in the United States are classified as high-hazard structures, according to the Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. High-Hazard structures are defined as those which failure or mis-operation of the structure is expected to result in loss of life, and significant economic and environmental losses.

Dams can also have a larger climate impact than is often acknowledged.

“The initial construction of dams releases incredible amounts of carbon pollution as the land gets flooded.” said Johanna Neumann, the Senior Director for Environment America, an advocacy group. She added that dams are not “infinitely” renewable as some might think. ‘’Eventually over the course of decades, the dam silts up, as the sediment piles. You got less and less power production until the dam eventually doesn’t produce any.’’

“That’s an absurd way to run an energy system. By switching to solar, by switching to wind, and by doubling down on reducing energy waste, we can solve our energy problems,” said Neumann.

So, what’s the answer?

Hydropower isn’t the solution to achieving a 100% carbon neutral USA, but it can be a part of it, experts say.

“Having access to multiple different sources of energy is a strength. We have hydropower resources in the Pacific northwest, wind resources in the Midwest, and solar resources in the Sunbelt. A modern grid should be able to integrate renewable energy and ensure there is enough to meet demand,” said Bresette.

One of the most promising technologies today is solar power. In 2020, distributed solar installations around the country produced about 3000MWdc according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Distributed solar is electricity generated at or near where it will be used, reducing transmission waste through power lines. That means a person can install a solar panel on their roof to reduce energy costs, and even sell additional electricity generated back to the utility company. The process of being compensated for energy sold back to the grid is called net metering.

But the problem is…

The transition to solar energy undercuts the $645 billion-dollar US utilities industry, according to IBISWorld, an industry research report.

As more people install residential solar panels the less money utility companies make. For example, California, a pioneer in convincing consumers to go solar, has the equivalent of 10 million homes supplied by solar energy, far more than any other state, according to the SEIA.  But California’s transition to solar has sparked strong pushback from utility companies.

“A misconception people have is that utilities make money off of selling electrons, but they actually make money off of moving electrons across great distances,” said Bernadette del Chiaro, the Executive Director of the California Solar & Storage Association.

Bernadette del Chiaro, Executive Director of the California Solar & Storage Association

“Utility companies have this built-in disincentive to support distributed generation (generating electricity on-site) and have a built-in incentive to transport power over great distances to the places where people live, work, and use energy,” Chiaro explained.

Blocking Solar

Many experts say that utility companies have slowed the adoption of distributed solar across the country by cutting or eliminating net metering policies, and by branding the adoption of solar as a class and race issue.

In 2019, the Ohio utility company FirstEnergy engaged in a massive $61 million bribery and influence campaign that resulted in the passage of a law removing state incentives for renewable energy development and charging customers to bail out failing coal and nuclear power plants. Similar tactics involving political donations, lobbying, funding of deceptive anti-solar initiatives and more have been used across the country, including in Illinois, Kansas, and Florida.

Utility companies also have spread the myth that solar energy is harming the poor and helping the rich.

A public relations campaign by California’s Edison Electric claims going solar is a ‘cost shift’. Chiara says their argument is “those who go solar are rich, white, and not paying for the grid, but instead putting all of the burden of the grid onto the poor, non-white people who can’t afford to go solar.’’

“And (the campaign) has as much power behind it as they have political power. So, they are very generous in their donations to the legislature and to the governor,” Chiaro said.

Another argument used against distributed solar, such as roof solar panels, is the fact that it’s a lot cheaper to make giant utility scale solar or wind farms. But Bryn Huxtley-Reicher, one of the authors of ‘’Blocking Rooftop Solar,’’ a report by the Federation of State Public Interest Groups, argues that both distributed solar, and utility-scale solar can be used to get the grid off fossil fuels and prevent further environmental damage.

“It’s not an either/or situation. It’s a ‘Yes…and….’ The faster we can get renewable energy onto the grid, and the less energy we need to actually transition from fossil fuels to renewables, the better’’ Huxtley-Reicher said.

The Future of Solar

“Solar is already starting to pull ahead of Hydro,’’ Chiaro said.

US solar panel installations are expected to quadruple from nearly 100 GWdc of capacity installed today to more than 400 GWdc installed by 2030, according to the SEIA. Additionally, the Energy Information Administration projects that the share of all renewable electricity generation, particularly wind and solar, will increase from 21% in 2020 to 42% in 2050. As the technologies become cheaper, the likelihood is that more people will adopt it.

Ben Delman, the senior director of communications at Solar United Neighbors says that “the cost of solar has gone down significantly in the last 5 to 10 years. People are starting to ask more and more if this makes sense for them, and their families.’’

Currently, the Biden administration plans on taking advantage of the decreasing cost of solar. The White House announced in June it will allow developers to source solar modules and cells from other countries and authorized the U.S. Energy Department to rapidly expand American manufacturing of solar panel parts. This is part of Biden’s goal to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035.

“For the future, better public education about solar is needed, and a guarantee that homeowners, families and consumers get fair credit on the electricity they generate. People are starting to connect energy prices to larger issues in the world,” Delman added.