Published on July 25, 2023

Renewable energy permitting in Bosnia and Herzegovina: how to optimise the process while safeguarding the environment and public participation

, Pippa Gallop (Bankwatch)

Investors complain about excessive administrative requirements to build wind farms, but the poorly-controlled proliferation of hydropower plants indicates a dearth of environmental and social safeguards. How can sustainable renewables be built quickly enough while protecting nature and ensuring public participation?

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has significant potential to develop environmentally acceptable forms of renewable energy. It also has stunning landscapes and biodiversity including rivers, karst fields and forests that many western European countries can only dream of. And if it is to withstand the increasingly extreme conditions wrought by climate change, it now faces the twin challenge of rapidly increasing its renewables fleet while protecting its nature. 

But although many projects are under development, BiH has only three wind farms in operation, all in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) entity. As of the end of 2022, BiH had 102 megawatts (MW) of solar plant capacity. This is more than neighbouring countries like Montenegro and Serbia, but is still not sufficient. 

The reasons for this are many, including lack of political will, legislative issues, preferential treatment of certain producers, and uncertainty about incentive schemes. But the issue of permitting caught our attention, partly because it is an increasing area of focus at the EU level, and partly because investors have claimed that around 60 various permits, consent documents and notifications are needed to build a wind farm in BiH.  

The latter surprised us, as the experience with hydropower plants indicates too little environmental regulation, not too much. Plants have been permitted or built in locations where they should never have been allowed, such as protected areas or areas planned for protection, and seem to have little trouble obtaining permits, causing a widespread public outcry. We therefore asked the Aarhus Centre in Sarajevo to take a closer look at permitting procedures in BiH to see what can be improved. 

Spatial planning chaos 

An over-arching problem, especially in FBiH, is spatial planning. Better spatial planning, and the definition of acceleration areas for renewables, is being given increased attention in the EU as a way to build social consensus on renewables siting and avoid lengthy procedures to include projects in spatial plans at a later stage. But FBiH does not even have an spatial plan, so formally, one from the early 1980s is still valid. Consequently, the cantonal and district spatial plans that exist are a mixture of the Yugoslav one, a draft FBiH one produced in the 2000s that was never adopted, and new projects that are not aligned with the higher order plans. 

Republika Srpska has a 2015-2025 spatial plan, but it fails to resolve fundamental conflicts. For example, it plans eight hydropower plants on the upper Neretva river but also plans to protect it. 

Inconsistent concession rules in FBiH 

In FBIH, hydropower concessions larger than 5 MW are issued by the Federal Ministry for Energy Mining and Industry, and smaller ones by cantonal authorities, while wind and solar are left to the cantonal level to regulate. The result is a patchwork of different rules and legal grey areas, with some cantons requiring concessions, some not, and some not yet having rules. 

Around 29 permits and notifications needed – and in FBiH none can be obtained online 

Our analysis identified around around 29 permits/consents/notifications needed to build a wind farm in FBiH, and they cannot be obtained online. We identified roughly the same number of steps in Republika Srpska, but a substantially higher number can be obtained online. In each case, the system consists of three main permits, for which all other documents and approvals are preconditions. 

FBiH  Republika Srpska 
Urbanistička saglasnost  

(spatial consent) 

Lokacijske uslove  

(spatial conditions) 

Odobrenje za građenje  

(construction permit) 

Građevinska dozvola  

(construction permit) 

Odobrenje za upotrebu  

(operating permit) 

Upotreba dozvola  

(operating permit) 

Even for very small-scale solar, nine different steps are needed in each entity, including a requirement to obtain the permits shown above. 

How to optimise the project development process 

Despite the strong need for an increase in renewable energy, approving every project in every location is not the goal. Not every kind of renewable energy is sustainable, as BiH has already learned with hydropower, and not every location is acceptable. However, it is unacceptable that needless administrative barriers, which serve no social or environmental purpose, continue to impede renewables development. 

In FBiH, draft laws are currently pending adoption which would scrap the requirement to obtain the above permits for small solar plants. Given that their installation does not entail significant environmental impacts, this makes sense and is a long-overdue move. Our analysis also identified many more ways to make permitting more efficient in BiH: 

  • FBiH needs to adopt a new spatial plan and bring local plans into line with it. Republika Srpska needs to improve its post-2025 plan by ensuring land use contradictions and conflicts are resolved during the process. In both entities, better spatial planning should replace the requirement to obtain consent from various communal services. 
  • Republika Srpska needs to introduce an online integrated property register. 
  • FBiH needs to ensure uniform concession requirements across different cantons. 
  • FBiH needs to introduce online permitting and Republika Srpska needs to extend it to cover all documents. 
  • Both entities need to rationalise the documentation needed for various permits to prevent duplication, and need to ensure that entry into renewable energy project registers happens automatically instead of project promoters being responsible. FBiH also needs to introduce a one-stop shop contact point. 
  • FBiH should consider merging the project documentation consent with the energy permit and exempting solar and wind from the requirement to obtain a permit to carry out electrical energy activities. 
  • Republika Srpska needs to abolish the requirement to obtain the permits mentioned above for small solar installations. FBiH needs to introduce a system of accredited installers to simplify the process for households and businesses. 

To prevent a public backlash, quality – not only speed – is needed 

Speed is important, but cannot be the only consideration. As the small hydropower debacle showed, a social consensus needs to be reached on the locations, types and construction methods of renewable energy installations. Ideally, these decisions should be made at an early stage during the development of sectoral strategies, spatial plans and river basin management plans to avoid problems and conflicts at a later stage. 

This can only be achieved through robust implementation of the Aarhus Convention, which among others guarantees public participation in decision-making on environmental matters regarding individual projects, plans, programmes and legislation. The Convention’s provisions are partly integrated in EU legislation such as the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive, the Habitats Directive, the Birds Directive and the Water Framework Directive 

Yet of these, only the EIA Directive is applied in Bosnia and Herzegovina – and not always very well — despite the SEA Directive also being obligatory for energy-related plans and programmes under the Energy Community Treaty. For this reason, we also provide several recommendations aimed at improving environmental assessments and public participation in both entitities:  

  • Apply the SEA Directive to relevant plans and projects. 
  • Transpose the Habitats and Birds Directives and give legal protection to Emerald sites and future Natura 2000 sites. Introduce appropriate assessments of project impacts on the Emerald network as part of the EIA procedure. Improve the quality of EIA studies to reduce the number of court challenges against approvals. 
  • Introduce a formal process under Article 4(7) of the Water Framework Directive to assess the potential need for derogations from the goals of the entities’ water laws. Additionally, implement the existing provision stipulating that conflicts and derogations need to be analysed during development of the river basin management plan. 
  • Both entities need to strengthen the licensing criteria and monitoring for companies accredited to carry out technical and environmental studies and hold them accountable for the quality of their work. 

These may sound like additional burdens, but in fact carrying out SEAs and using river basin management plans as a basis for resolving land/water use conflicts would help to prevent issues at a later stage, while appropriate assessments and Article 4(7) assessments provide a structured process and criteria to decide whether projects can go ahead or not. 

The current situation, in which BiH and its neighbours are developing renewable energy without having all these safeguards in place, is extremely problematic, and unless this is resolved, a re-run of the hydropower fiasco is likely. The EU also needs to play a role, by increasing the pressure on accession countries to apply environmental legislation and by including the relevant parts of the Habitats, Birds and Water Framework Directives into the Energy Community Treaty. But BiH must not wait for the EU, it must act now to preserve its stunning environment. 

An English summary of the analysis is available here. The full original, in B/H/S language, is available on request.